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International Women’s Day 2022: Spotlight on women in China

To mark this year’s International Women’s Day, we asked our female Local In-Market Experts around the world to give us an insight into economic and political conditions for women in their country. In the first of a six-part blog series, Yue – who is based in Shanghai – tells us what life in China is like for women. Here’s what she said.


Cultural and political background

When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong called upon women to join the labour force, famously saying “women hold up half the sky”. He also said that “whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too”. China’s first constitution enacted under the CCP stated that “Women enjoy equal rights with men in political, economic, cultural, education and social life”.

Decades later, Chairman Mao’s vision for gender equality remains unrealised. It has, however, left China with a legacy of high female labour force participation, which since 1990 has always been amongst the highest in the world, consistently exceeding that of the US. That said, the gender gap in labour force participation has been widening in China in recent years. This is partly because of the loosening of state controls over the economy, as part of liberalisation initiated by former leader Deng Xiaoping.

Traditional belief systems, such as those tied to Confucian ideology, can reduce autonomy and economic independence for women and these beliefs have deeper roots in rural communities. Culturally, there is a strong preference for sons in China. China has made the slowest progress of any country in closing gender gaps in sex ratio at birth: in 2018, 88.8 girls were born for every 100 boys, reflecting gender-biased pre-natal sex selection practices (Global Gender Gap Report, Word Economic Forum). As a result, today China has 34 million more men than women.


The legacy of China’s one-child policy

Between 1980 and 2015, China operated a one-child policy, in response to fears about over-population. The policy was amended in the mid-80s to allow rural families to have a second child, if their first born was a girl. In 2015, it became a two-child policy everywhere, and in 2021, it was scrapped altogether.

Scrapping the one-child policy has had unintended consequences for women in the workplace. Before, if a married woman already had one child, companies knew she wouldn’t give birth to another. Now, with the limit removed, there is a higher perceived risk in hiring women. In China, once a woman is pregnant, she can take leave for nearly a year provided she can obtain proof from a hospital that she is not able to work. Companies cannot fire her without incurring legal penalties – which makes employers more cautious about who they recruit.

This is compounded by unbalanced maternity and paternity leave. A number of Chinese regions recently extended leave for new mothers but not fathers. On Chinese social media, many observers said the prolonged leave was a bad idea, because by only targeting one gender, rather than neutral benefits like paid family leave, the reforms reinforce the traditional view that women shoulder the lion’s share of housework and caregiving – as well as increasing the risk that some employers might show hiring bias against young women who may become mothers.

For myself, being single and attending interviews, I have often been asked, “Do you have a boyfriend? Do you plan to get married?” and similar questions – by large foreign-owned companies as well as small privately-owned ones. These questions are designed to assess my risk of going on maternity leave in the future and are not uncommon in China. Occasionally, there are news reports of pregnant women being side-lined or fired during or after pregnancy, like this one.


Women in key leadership and entrepreneurial roles

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum, in China:

  • Only 11.4% of board members and 16.7% of senior managers are women.
  • Only 24.9% of parliamentarians and 3.2% of ministers are women.

China Daily reports that more than 70% of employees in the top 15 most-paid technical positions are still held by men, though change is happening: more women are choosing to study majors such as science, technology, engineering and maths, which means more female graduates are finding jobs with higher salaries.

According to Forbes, there are only ten women on China’s 100 Richest List. However, there are some eye-catching examples of women holding top roles at flagship companies, which can sometimes be a legacy of the one-child policy – successful entrepreneurs and company founders whose only child is a daughter often groom them to take over the family business, despite the prevailing cultural preference for sons to take over.

One famous Chinese female entrepreneur who stands out is Tao Huabi. She founded Lao Gan Ma (Chinese: 老干妈) or Old Godmother, a brand of chili sauces made in China. For many, Tao Huabi is the embodiment of the ‘Chinese dream.’ Tao was born in a poverty-stricken village, in Meitan County, Guizhou, in 1947. She was the eighth girl in the family, and never learned to read or write. By following her own path and relying on her business instinct, Tao rose from poverty and became one of China’s richest women. Lao Gan Ma eventually employed over 2,000 factory workers and became the largest producer and seller of chili products in China, reaching a point where the company produced 1.3 million bottles of chili sauce every day. Tao’s empire is now international, with her condiments sold from the US to Africa. In 2019, Lao Gan Ma was selected as one of the top 100 brands in China, together with other famous national brands such as China Mobile, Huawei, Tik Tok, Tsingtao, and Alibaba.


Education attainment gap between men and women

In recent years, China’s official statistics show there are more female than male students in Chinese universities and the gap is widening. In a country with more men than women, where many families still prioritise boys’ education over girls’, the gender ratio on campuses in striking.

Because of this, some universities are believed to have been secretly dropping their admission criteria for male students, to prevent schools from having too disproportionate a gender ratio. This news article cited a university requiring an admission score for male students of 668 but 715 for female students.


Pay gap between men and women in China

According to China Daily:

  • The average monthly salary of women in urban China reached 6,995 yuan ($1,005) in 2019, up 7.7% year-on-year. Though women continue to earn only 81.6% of men’s salary, it was the first time the gender pay gap shrank in three years, thanks to the growing number of well-paid female workers.
  • The wage gap between men and women varies by occupation, industry and work experience. Men tend to be more involved in well-paid jobs, such as technology, sales and engineering, while women more typically hold posts in administration, operations and marketing, which are more stable, but less well paid.
  • The gap expands with the number of working years. The gap between salary of women and men with 15 years’ experience reached 36.4%, mainly affected by marriage and child-bearing. But with the increasing participation and contribution of women in workplace, the overall trend is towards equality.

In 2017, academics Yao Tang and Rebecca Scott used the term ‘sticky floor’ – as opposed to glass ceiling – to refer to the phenomenon of women being stuck in lower paid occupations.


A changing economic environment

Since Xi Jinping assumed power (in 2013), some argue that women have been increasingly pushed out of the workplace and into traditional gender roles. This is partly because China has an ageing society – by the middle of this century, it’s predicted that one in three Chinese will be over 60 years old. Encouraging women to stay at home and look after their family appears to be part of the government’s strategy for dealing with an elderly society. In addition, the government wants to reverse China’s low birth rate and the current gender imbalance by encouraging women to have children.

Loosening state control over the marketplace has given private sector firms – and even state-owned enterprises – more latitude in a competitive economic environment to discriminate against women.

The work environment for women in China varies across sectors. As a broad generalisation, foreign-owned and state-owned companies tend to be more compliant with local legislation. Privately-owned companies, particularly small and medium-sized ones, can sometimes be less compliant.


China’s family structure is evolving

China’s family structure is evolving, with fewer married couples now living with their parents. In the past, grandparents could have shared some of the childcare responsibilities. This has been compounded by a decline in childcare support from the state, which means women have to spend more time at home taking care of their children. Research showed that in 2018, Chinese women on average devoted three times as many hours to childcare as men did.


Equality legislation in China

Bloomberg recently reported on proposed new legislation to protect women’s rights at work. The proposed revisions would be the first major changes to women’s rights laws in nearly 20 years. As revised, the law would offer the most comprehensive legal definition yet of sexual harassment, to include behaviours such as sending unwanted sexually explicit images or pressuring someone into a relationship in exchange for benefits. It also instructs schools and employers to introduce anti-harassment training and channels for complaints.

However, some women are sceptical that real progress will follow. Many of the provisions already exist in other laws or regulations but have been poorly enforced. Whilst the new laws would affirm women’s right to sue, their emphasis is mainly on authorising government officials to take top-down action against offenders.

. . .

This article is based on insights and commentary supplied to us by Yue, one of Oban’s LIMEs based in Shanghai. Oban’s LIME network comprises over 450 Local In-Market Experts based in over 80 countries around the world. Our LIMEs provide authentic, on-the-ground cultural, linguistic and digital insights that help our clients succeed in their target markets. To find out how your business could benefit from Oban’s LIME network, please get in touch.

Oban International is the digital marketing agency specialising in international expansion. Our LIME (Local In-Market Expert) Network provides up to date cultural input and insights from over 80 markets around the world, helping clients realise the best marketing opportunities and avoid the costliest mistakes.

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