Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is the status of chinese women in the workplace regressing?

Despite the important role Chinese women entrepreneurs have played in the development of the country's economy, since its opening in 1978, there are signs that the status of Chinese women in the workplace may be regressing.

While, on the one hand, women from Greater China take up 21 seats on Forbes’ list of the 50 most powerful businesswomen in Asia, on the other hand, China’s once-in-a-decade official survey on women’s employment (2010) showed that the relative economic position of Chinese women had regressed, rather than advanced, in the last decades.

One alarming finding is that the gender income gap has widened: in 2010, women earned 67% of their male counterparts in urban areas, compared to 70% of their male in 2000 and 77% two decades ago.

The survey also shows the persistent bias against promoting female workers: about one-third of the Chinese companies said that for equally qualified candidates, males have a better chance of being promoted in their company than females. According to the All-China Women’s Federation's data, men hold more than 80% of senior corporate positions in China.

It is being said that these regresive trends may be the resurgence of traditional gender roles. According to the official survey on women’s employment, in 2010 nearly 5% more females and 8% more males agreed with the Chinese saying "nan zhu wai, nu zhu nei" (“men shall be outside, women shall be inside", meaning "male are breadwinners", "women are homemakers”) compared with 2000.

The responsibility of being a primary caretaker for the household and children in China often demands a woman’s undivided attention. For example, many urban mothers are now opting out of the workforce when their (normally, single) children enter school, where cut-throat competition starts as early as kindergarten. In China, fathers are not yet counted on to raise children.

Women's voluntary opting out of the workforce may be the reason the female employment rate slipped to 74% in 2010 from 91% in 1990. In China’s urban areas, only 6 out of 10 women are in the workplace, compared with 8 out of 10 in rural areas, according to the 2010 survey findings.

This retreat from the workforce is, however, only possible in well-off households in cities which can afford to rely on a single source of income. In most urban households, this is not possible and they have to rely on the woman's parents to take care of their children. But the responsibility for arranging everything related to the children's taking care responsibility is fully taken by women, which certainly constitutes a burden to their professional development paths.

This average Chinese professional woman situation is pretty much in contrast to the one of entrepreneurs who can attribute their success, at least in part, to their support of their families (see examples in my book "China's New Leaders") and/or to their well-connected husbands or families. Examples of the latest are: Zhang Xin, CEO of SOHO China, who has a prominent husband, property mogul Pan Shiyi; and Yan Lan, dubbed “China’s Oprah Winfrey,” who only saw her career catapult after a second marriage to a wealthy husband.

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