China’s tumultuous history has directly shaped the role of its women. Decades of Communism undoubtedly advanced the social position of women, as a legacy of foot-binding and concubines gave way to a system that valued the education and productivity of the androgynous worker and, at least nominally, deemed women as holding up “half of the sky.”
Yet “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought” failed to stamp out traditional values entirely. The idea that nan zhu wai, nu zhu nei – men are the breadwinners, women are the homemakers – has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, in part because families are becoming affluent enough for more wives and mothers to leave the workforce.
Those Chinese women who do pursue careers may confront sometimes explicit prejudice in the workplace, with companies admitting to such practices as refusing to hire pregnant women and systematically promoting men over women. China Economic Review spoke with six Chinese women born in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s about how they navigate conflicting pressures at home and in the workplace.
Wang Xiaoqiong, an undergraduate studying finance at Syracuse University, mid-20s
I will graduate this December, and I’m considering two options. First, I’m going to try as hard as I can to find a finance job in the US and work my way up to a senior position. I know that will be hard, so I may not think about marriage for a while. Otherwise, I may go back to Xi’an, my hometown, and get a job at a state-owned company. The pay won’t be very much, but at least you don’t have to work overtime. I’m more inclined toward the second option, honestly. I really don’t want to waste my life working overtime. I heard of this girl who died working at PwC because of too much overtime and irregular meals. People in China are under so much pressure; I really don’t think Chinese women can have it all. There isn’t a fair promotion environment for Chinese women, and a lot of business deals are closed over dinner while everybody is a little drunk. A friend of mine works in corporate social responsibility, and his department doesn’t employ women because the job deals with clients and requires frequent business trips. This happens a lot in China.
Debbie Fang, senior manager at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Shanghai, mid-30s
China is too big to be defined simply as “China is like this, China is like that.” Based on my observations, I would say that females in China obviously answer to a wider group compared to their counterparts in western countries. Couples in the West are more independent; to them marriage is only about the two of them. In China, marriage is, in many cases, the union of two families. Women in China usually have more balls to juggle – they have their husband, their own parents, their husband’s parents, relatives on both sides, neighbors, colleagues, etc., so they need to be very diplomatic and extra strong in either ignoring the multiple sources of pressure or in attending to them. It’s a pity that they need to handle this extra layer of pressure. They should be able to use their brain cells for more interesting things! This is deeply rooted in culture, so one can’t expect the situation to change overnight. But encouragingly changes are happening – multinational companies have started offering flexible working hours; there are more day care options; the concept of “house husband” has surfaced in recent years. All these are helping to lessen the pressure on working women, but they are not happening fast enough. For example, maybe your company is fine with this, but your client is not so happy with having a meeting where you call in rather than show up. Given the speed of our society, things often can’t wait until the next day. In big cities, like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, people walk fast, they work fast, they accomplish something, tick it off the list, and do the next thing. You are in it, and you can’t say ‘hey, slow down.’
Jane Huang, people and development director at Omnicom Media Group, late 30s
Career and family are both important to me; they are two different sources of happiness. The key in balancing both is your choice of a significant other. If your values, personality, interests and habits match those of your husband, many of your problems will be solved. For a woman who wants to be successful in career, a partner’s support is critical. Then, you have to have your priorities. My attitude towards my family and career has been different at different stages of life. I think 35 is a turning point: Before that, most of your time can be focused on your career, but after that a good balance is more essential. I’ve seen relatively little discrimination in my career, as I’ve always worked in foreign companies with policies aimed at eliminating discrimination. Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou are more open than lower-tier cities in terms of woman’s career development. I’ve heard stories about companies refusing to hire pregnant women in some small cities. There is still some feudal thinking in China, especially in lower-tier cities, that women are not very capable, that they should stay at home, do housework, take care of the children and not show their face in public.
Sherry Zhang, English professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University and teacher at New Oriental Education & Technology Group, late 20s
There are many instances of unfair treatment, but most people are still hired or promoted based on ability. I think Chinese society should protect women more, and companies should not look at whether a woman is pregnant when they are hiring. A woman can absolutely have a high-powered career while also taking care of her family. The important thing is for a woman is to find a suitable husband and hire an ayi [housekeeper] to help with the housework. As for a child’s education, I think the pressure comes from parents interfering too much. We should not think of family as a burden but rather as a safe haven. A good family can help a woman feel settled and help her career develop. Yang Lan [a TV host sometimes called “the Oprah of China”] said, “Women should act according to their age, present the profile that is appropriate for their age.” I always tell my daughter to remember that, and be confident, passionate and persistent.
Miss Xuan, an anesthesiologist at Zhongshan Hospital, 28
I’m not very ambitious in my career. I just like to work 9 to 5 and not have to deal with too much pressure. When I get married, I expect that my life will be centered around my family. A happy marriage and healthy children are the greatest success a woman can have. So women naturally shift their focus to their family after they are married. Most of my friends and colleagues who are married do not work that hard; they devote their weekends to family, especially if they have kids. The concept of nan zhu wai, nu zhu nei (“men are breadwinners, women are homemakers”) has already changed somewhat, but it is still there in our subconscious. Ideally, I think women should have a balance between work and family. There are still many successful examples of women who have created a win-win situation. I’m still young, so I can put more effort into my work right now. But if I get pregnant after I’m married, I won’t have an abortion to pursue my career, as 25-30 is the best age to bear children. Whether a woman can have a powerful job and a happy family depends on the nature of her job. If you are a chief physician, it is impossible not to be busy, and sometimes you have to sacrifice time with your family. But I think a harmonious family life is the foundation of a successful career; the career, in turn, promotes happiness in the family.
Miss Hu, an English major at Donghua University, early 20s
Family is important, but in this era family is not a woman’s sole responsibility. Women also need to gain financial independence to win
respect and acknowledgement. What hinders women’s careers most at present is prejudice. There are still some deep-rooted, backward ideas. Some bosses seem to believe that a woman’s main job is her family, and they promote men because they think women spend lots of time with their families and that men are stronger than women. I think if women lose the motivation to work, that will have a big influence on how our society develops. There’s a saying that “If you educate a boy, you educate one person. If you educate a girl, you educate a whole generation.” Women are natural role models for their children. Actually China’s government is doing a great job to help women have it all. But we can’t change people’s minds only with policies. There’s a saying in China that “the higher ups have policies, and the lower downs have ways of getting around them.” Bosses can still treat women how they wish.