‘Subordinate roles’ passing into rear view mirror, but issues remain

BEIJING–Decades ago, the “Made in China” tag took the world by storm. The verdict was unanimous: The Chinese are smart and enterprising.

This popularity, however, came cemented with some presumptions. The world took for granted that all Chinese are good at math and that every person in China knows Kung Fu. Even now, it is holding on to the notion that “Chinese women are subordinate to men.”

This is not true, says “Maggie,” the co-founder of Beijing-based Lean In Think Tank, who has a huge fan following on WeChat. “Women have always had a high status — even in the Mao era and Qing dynasty. This is evident in literature, such as Hong Lou Meng (Red Mansion). In the 1950s and 1960s, China was enduring famine. Men were stronger and families naturally depended on them to work in the fields. That’s how the men’s status was elevated,”  said Maggie, who prefers not to give her surname.

It’s true that ancient Chinese considered women inferior to men. Earlier, the women abided by culturally defined roles: A woman listened to her father’s wishes until she was married. She religiously obeyed her husband until his demise. Later, she spent the rest of her life catering to her son’s demands. Women were primarily stay-at-home mothers. Even the much sought-after Confucian ideology confined females to an oppressed social status.

Even today, there are a few cases of Chinese mothers advising their daughters to “marry well rather than do well in career.” In rural China, families still prefer to have sons rather than daughters.

Urban China, however, has a fairly liberal mindset. Wan, a businessman in Beijing says: “I have a son and daughter. I have set the same expectations for them. Somehow, due to cultural influence, I may go a little easy on my daughter. While I console my daughter when cries, I teach my son to ‘toughen up.’ But this does not make a woman inferior. Today, men and women receive the same rights and benefits. At many levels, they are given equal responsibilities.”

The change in women’s roles reverberates through the generations. An 82-year-old cardiovascular specialist who works at a privately owned Beijing hospital told Asia Times: “I was one of the few women in my class graduating from medicine, even university, and I had to try harder than anyone to prove myself. Now, it is not that big of a deal for a woman to be a doctor anymore, back then, women could only be nurses.”

The ‘third gender’

Women college graduates in Chongqing

With the soaring number of highly educated Chinese women, some older types feel these women have lost their femininity. In 2014, Quartz published an article alluding to educated women in China as “the third gender.” With such stereotypes and traditions, it’s quite clear why the West believes women are the subordinate lot.

In another telling trend, China’s labor demographic is heading from “muscles to brains.” “Media often exaggerates (the inequality issue). Amplifying Chinese gender inequality is a case in point. With the shift in labor demographic, women have become more essential to the growth of companies. Smart women end up being start-up CEOs. This shows there is more acceptance for professional women today,” said Maggie.

“Ivy,” a digital manager for Edelman in Beijing and the mother of a two-year-old boy, says gender equality is improving generally in China and also because some industries are less discriminatory than others. She says the PR/digital communication profession is an example. “It’s common to see women in leadership there,” she said.

Research from Bain Consulting shows that women graduates in China make up 47% of working population. Among these, 72% say they hope to become “C-level” executives.

Lucy Peng, CEO of the Alibaba Small and Micro Financial Services Group: One of China’s highest ranking women execs.

A study conducted by Prof McGuinness at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School shows there’s a direct correlation between private companies and and increased recruitment of women employees. “Private companies in China are more likely to hire women CEOs,” said Prof McGuiness, who is optimistic of the future of Chinese women. He forecasts that more women will get into management.

Other factors fueling the trend include China’s one-child policy which eased the child-rearing burden on women. A general opening of Chinese society to influences from the outside world also helped to dramatically improve the situation of women in China.

“Angie,” a Chinese Ph.D. student at the State University of New York, Albany, said things must be looked from a holistic point of view. While women have made progress in China, other societal forces are pulling them back.“Equality must be looked at from political, economic, cultural, and social perspectives,” she said. “Census data reveals that in urban areas, labor participation rate dropped from 77.5% in 1990 to 67.3% in 2010.”

At a macro level, she says women are yet to gain new economic independence. In the Mao era, there was a concept of universal child care, where the government took care of the children while the parents worked. When China opened its doors to the world, it introduced capitalism, private nurseries, and kindergartens.  Gradually, the government stopped providing help. “This puts the childcare burden on the mothers, who instead of working, sit at home to take care of their child,” Angie said.

137 million female workers

In 2010, China had about 137 million female workers, accounting for 42.6% of the country’s workforce. This compares with just 7.5% in 1949. Interestingly, the number of female lawmakers on the national stage stands at 22%, when compared to only 17% in the US. According to a study by Grant Thornton, the proportion of women in senior management reached 51%, outpacing the global average of 21%.

Female officers and soldiers of the three services of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army at 2015 V-J Day parade in Beijing.

Chinese women are performing well in large corporations in China as well as abroad. Six Chinese women made it to the Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women List in 2015. These women are definitely not living the stereotypical “subordinate life.”

“Fay,” a marketing manager at Durex in Beijing who’s been studying gender roles and expectations in China said: “There is more and more detailed social division of labor within the society. With the boom of the Internet- driven economy and especially in start-ups, with flatter hierarchical structure, and with the growing popularity of platforms such as LinkedIn or WeChat, modern women are finding new ways to express themselves. And they are receiving unprecedented career development opportunities. There is an obvious growth of freedom in choosing what women want to do, which is directly making women more confident, and helping them reach an realization of the multidimensional self value.”

Gender equality issues are made more challenging in China because education opportunities in rural areas are less. A persisting belief in the countryside that boys are much more valuable than girls also doesn’t help. “It really takes time to change people’s perception,” Edelman’s Ivy said.

The upshot is that women in China face a complex situation regarding their aspirations, actual roles and society’s expectations of them. There is an underlying tone of inequality in society that still holds them back. At the same time, the stereotype of women being subordinate to men in China is no longer true. Women in China are no longer subordinate to men in legal terms or in education opportunities, and China, in many ways. leads the world in providing opportunities for women.

Angie says: “I am optimistic about China’s gender equality. I think the people in their twenties are progressive and they seek equality. In two decades, they will become the backbone of society. People will see a change in gender dynamics, and regulations pertaining to women’s rights will be holistic.”

Grace Shao is a Beijing-based freelance journalist. She has written for CCTV America and other publications. She is completing a Bilingual Masters degree at Tsinghua University in financial journalism.

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