Holding up half the sky: The current state of female employment in China Holding up half the sky: The current state of female employment in China

Holding up half the sky: The current state of female employment in China
09 Nov 2017

Female employment in China was at one time moving in a positive direction. In the late 1970s, almost 10 years after Chairman Mao famously remarked that “women hold up half the sky”, about 90% of working-age women in cities were participating in the workforce. By 1980, China had become one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations International Convention on removing all forms of discrimination against women. In 1992 and 1994, gender equality was integrated into Chinese legislation, with the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women and the Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care each respectively being signed into force.

But more recent statistics show that the composition of China’s workforce is becoming increasingly unbalanced. The trend is clearfemale employment rates in the country are falling steadily. According to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), participation levels for working women dropped by 9% from 73% in 1990 to 64% in 2014.

Moreover, according to the 2010 national census, the employment rate for Chinese women between the ages of 20 and 59 in 1990 was 84.3%. By 2000, it had dropped to 79.5%, and by 2010, it had fallen again to 73.6%. Statistics from the All- China Women’s Federation (ACWF), a statesponsored women’s rights organisation, are similar, or lower-it put participation levels at 71.1% for 2010. Despite this decline, the number of females in China’s workforce are on a par with, and sometimes better than, many developed countries. In 2014, for instance, 61.4% of women were employed in Canada. In Norway, it was 61.2%, in Sweden 60.2% and in the US, 56%.

The drop is partly explained by the country’s economic transformation over the last two decades. As China has moved away from labour-intensive forms of employment towards a consumption-driven and services-based economy, female participation levels in the workforce have decreased in tandem. But this shift does not explain everything. To get a fuller picture, government policies and social pressures also have to be taken into account.

Urban and rural employment

An important distinction must be made at this point. China’s overall female employment rate includes women in both urban and rural settings. This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, despite rapid industrialisation over the last three decades, China is still heavily dependent on agriculture. This sector employs roughly equal numbers of men and women, although it is more female-dominated some years than others.

Secondly, China’s future is highly urban. It is projected that close to 70% of the country’s population will live in cities by 2030. Therefore, urban women are seen as the best indicators of gender equality in the workplace - and participation rates here are to date much lower than in the countryside, as can be seen in the table below:

The census data shows that the employment rate for urban women aged between 20 and 59 was 60.8% in 2010 compared with 1990 when it was 77.4%. On the other hand, female participation levels in rural locations decreased by only 2.7% despite high levels of industrialisation between 1990 and 2010.

Resurgence of traditional gender norms

The reduction in numbers of female workers in China comes at a time when traditional gender norms are resurging to place most household and childrearing responsibilities in the hands of women. The perception that the public domain belongs to males and the domestic to females has increased by 7.7% among men and by 4.4% among women since 2000.

There has been a concerted effort to encourage women to focus on marriage and family instead of careers, most prominently through the widespread use of the term, “leftover women”. It refers to those over the ripe, old age of 27 who have high levels of education and successful careers, but who have yet to marry. While some believe the term to be complimentary, it was initially used in a derogatory sense to galvanise well-educated women to marry and have children.

But female-friendly work policies have also been eroded too. Policies to aid working mothers such as subsidised healthcare largely disappeared after the economic reforms of the 1990s. While 72% of mothers between the ages of 25 and 34 with children under the age of six are currently employed, the number of options available to them has decreased.

In particular, government support for subsidised childcare has significantly reduced. The 2006 Chinese enterprise social responsibility survey revealed that less than 20% of state-owned enterprises and 5.7% of the total offered childcare for employees.

Workplace discrimination

But even women who have not yet had children are discriminated against during the recruitment process. The country offers paid maternity leave, which lasts a minimum of 98 days. But for some employers, this policy acts a disincentive to take them on at all.

“As China has moved away from labour-intensive forms of employment towards a consumption-driven and services-based economy, female participation levels in the workforce have decreased in tandem.”

The ACWF survey found that 72% of females believed they were not hired or were passed over for promotion because of their gender. A further 75% claimed they were fired because they were either married or became pregnant.

Another workplace issue relates to mandatory retirement ages. For women in blue-collar jobs, the mandatory retirement age is 50. For women holding white-collar positions, it is 55. For some women occupying special posts such as college professorships, the retirement age matches those of urban men at 60. But again, some employers choose to use this policy to justify discriminatory hiring practices.

To make matters worse, China also has a marked gender pay gap. On average, women earn 35% less than men for doing similar work. This scenario places the country near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, ranking it 91 out of 145. The situation is worse in rural areas where women’s average annual income amounts to only 56% of a man’s. The figure rises to 67.3% in urban areas.

Lack of representation

But such challenges are unlikely to be fixed any time soon as women are still severely underrepresented among the country’s leaders. The WEF report found that women outpaced men in educational attainment; in 2015, the female to male ratio for enrollment in tertiary education was 1.15:1. In parliament, however, the figure fell to 0.31:1 for ministerial roles to 0.13:1 and for head of state positions within the last 50 years, it dropped to 0.08:1. In fact, no woman has ever been a member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party, which leads China’s government.

In the corporate world, the situation is more encouraging, but there is still ample room for improvement. According to a report by the Asia Development Bank entitled ‘Women’s Leadership and Corporate Performance’, only 5.6% of females were chief executives, while a mere 4% were company chairpersons.

Possible change

But despite the inauspicious state of female employment in China, women outnumber men in higher education, and more and more are gaining higher degrees in order to increase their competitiveness. In 2013, 50.7% of all the students enrolled in tertiary education were women. In 2014, 37,631 Chinese women took Graduate Management Admissions Tests, which equated to 65% of the total.

Given uncommon but well-publicised legal rulings, policies may end up evolving too. On December 18, 2013, for example, China settled its first gender discrimination case in Beijing.

A woman named Cao Ju filed suit against the Juren School, a private training institute, for rejecting her job application on the basis of gender. Although she settled for RMB 30,000 (E3,991 or $4,518), the case drew wide attention to the issue of discrimination against women in the workplace and raised hopes that vague policy wording might in future be backed up by tangible change.

This article was first published on China Briefing.

Since its establishment in 1992, Dezan Shira & Associates has been guiding foreign clients through Asia’s complex regulatory environment and assisting them with all aspects of legal, accounting, tax, internal control, HR, payroll and audit matters. As a full-service consultancy with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India and ASEAN, we are your reliable partner for business expansion in this region and beyond. For inquiries, please email us at info@dezshira.com. Further information about the firm can be found at: www.dezshira.com.

Female employment in China was at one time moving in a positive direction. In the late 1970s, almost 10 years after Chairman Mao famously remarked that “women hold up half the sky”, about 90% of working-age women in cities were participating in the workforce. By 1980, China had become one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations International Convention on removing all forms of discrimination against women. In 1992 and 1994, gender equality was integrated into Chinese legislation, with the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women and the Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care each respectively being signed into force.

But more recent statistics show that the composition of China’s workforce is becoming increasingly unbalanced. The trend is clearfemale employment rates in the country are falling steadily. According to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), participation levels for working women dropped by 9% from 73% in 1990 to 64% in 2014.

Moreover, according to the 2010 national census, the employment rate for Chinese women between the ages of 20 and 59 in 1990 was 84.3%. By 2000, it had dropped to 79.5%, and by 2010, it had fallen again to 73.6%. Statistics from the All- China Women’s Federation (ACWF), a statesponsored women’s rights organisation, are similar, or lower-it put participation levels at 71.1% for 2010. Despite this decline, the number of females in China’s workforce are on a par with, and sometimes better than, many developed countries. In 2014, for instance, 61.4% of women were employed in Canada. In Norway, it was 61.2%, in Sweden 60.2% and in the US, 56%.

The drop is partly explained by the country’s economic transformation over the last two decades. As China has moved away from labour-intensive forms of employment towards a consumption-driven and services-based economy, female participation levels in the workforce have decreased in tandem. But this shift does not explain everything. To get a fuller picture, government policies and social pressures also have to be taken into account.

Urban and rural employment

An important distinction must be made at this point. China’s overall female employment rate includes women in both urban and rural settings. This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, despite rapid industrialisation over the last three decades, China is still heavily dependent on agriculture. This sector employs roughly equal numbers of men and women, although it is more female-dominated some years than others.

Secondly, China’s future is highly urban. It is projected that close to 70% of the country’s population will live in cities by 2030. Therefore, urban women are seen as the best indicators of gender equality in the workplace - and participation rates here are to date much lower than in the countryside, as can be seen in the table below:

The census data shows that the employment rate for urban women aged between 20 and 59 was 60.8% in 2010 compared with 1990 when it was 77.4%. On the other hand, female participation levels in rural locations decreased by only 2.7% despite high levels of industrialisation between 1990 and 2010.

Resurgence of traditional gender norms

The reduction in numbers of female workers in China comes at a time when traditional gender norms are resurging to place most household and childrearing responsibilities in the hands of women. The perception that the public domain belongs to males and the domestic to females has increased by 7.7% among men and by 4.4% among women since 2000.

There has been a concerted effort to encourage women to focus on marriage and family instead of careers, most prominently through the widespread use of the term, “leftover women”. It refers to those over the ripe, old age of 27 who have high levels of education and successful careers, but who have yet to marry. While some believe the term to be complimentary, it was initially used in a derogatory sense to galvanise well-educated women to marry and have children.

But female-friendly work policies have also been eroded too. Policies to aid working mothers such as subsidised healthcare largely disappeared after the economic reforms of the 1990s. While 72% of mothers between the ages of 25 and 34 with children under the age of six are currently employed, the number of options available to them has decreased.

In particular, government support for subsidised childcare has significantly reduced. The 2006 Chinese enterprise social responsibility survey revealed that less than 20% of state-owned enterprises and 5.7% of the total offered childcare for employees.

Workplace discrimination

But even women who have not yet had children are discriminated against during the recruitment process. The country offers paid maternity leave, which lasts a minimum of 98 days. But for some employers, this policy acts a disincentive to take them on at all.

“As China has moved away from labour-intensive forms of employment towards a consumption-driven and services-based economy, female participation levels in the workforce have decreased in tandem.”

The ACWF survey found that 72% of females believed they were not hired or were passed over for promotion because of their gender. A further 75% claimed they were fired because they were either married or became pregnant.

Another workplace issue relates to mandatory retirement ages. For women in blue-collar jobs, the mandatory retirement age is 50. For women holding white-collar positions, it is 55. For some women occupying special posts such as college professorships, the retirement age matches those of urban men at 60. But again, some employers choose to use this policy to justify discriminatory hiring practices.

To make matters worse, China also has a marked gender pay gap. On average, women earn 35% less than men for doing similar work. This scenario places the country near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, ranking it 91 out of 145. The situation is worse in rural areas where women’s average annual income amounts to only 56% of a man’s. The figure rises to 67.3% in urban areas.

Lack of representation

But such challenges are unlikely to be fixed any time soon as women are still severely underrepresented among the country’s leaders. The WEF report found that women outpaced men in educational attainment; in 2015, the female to male ratio for enrollment in tertiary education was 1.15:1. In parliament, however, the figure fell to 0.31:1 for ministerial roles to 0.13:1 and for head of state positions within the last 50 years, it dropped to 0.08:1. In fact, no woman has ever been a member of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party, which leads China’s government.

In the corporate world, the situation is more encouraging, but there is still ample room for improvement. According to a report by the Asia Development Bank entitled ‘Women’s Leadership and Corporate Performance’, only 5.6% of females were chief executives, while a mere 4% were company chairpersons.

Possible change

But despite the inauspicious state of female employment in China, women outnumber men in higher education, and more and more are gaining higher degrees in order to increase their competitiveness. In 2013, 50.7% of all the students enrolled in tertiary education were women. In 2014, 37,631 Chinese women took Graduate Management Admissions Tests, which equated to 65% of the total.

Given uncommon but well-publicised legal rulings, policies may end up evolving too. On December 18, 2013, for example, China settled its first gender discrimination case in Beijing.

A woman named Cao Ju filed suit against the Juren School, a private training institute, for rejecting her job application on the basis of gender. Although she settled for RMB 30,000 (E3,991 or $4,518), the case drew wide attention to the issue of discrimination against women in the workplace and raised hopes that vague policy wording might in future be backed up by tangible change.

This article was first published on China Briefing.

Since its establishment in 1992, Dezan Shira & Associates has been guiding foreign clients through Asia’s complex regulatory environment and assisting them with all aspects of legal, accounting, tax, internal control, HR, payroll and audit matters. As a full-service consultancy with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India and ASEAN, we are your reliable partner for business expansion in this region and beyond. For inquiries, please email us at info@dezshira.com. Further information about the firm can be found at: www.dezshira.com.