Women in Society

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Felicia F. Tian and Mu Zheng on the Female Labor Force in Reform-era China

Tian & Zheng Mu © Springer Nature

Dr. Felicia F. Tian and Dr. Zheng Mu

The feminist movement in the 1960s led the way for women to increase their presence in the labor force participation worldwide. It is one of the hallmarks of gender revolution. In the western world, women’s labor force participation has steadily increased to around 70-80% in the 2010s. However, China has experienced an opposite trend. Since the economic reform in the 1980s, women, particularly mothers with small children, has gradually withdrawn from the labor force.

 In Mao’s socialist era, women’s employment rate was more than 90%, among the highest in the world. Chairman Mao’s famous slogan “Women hold up half the sky” (fu nv neng ding ban bian tian) promoted and enforced gender equality as a top priority in the development of Chinese socialism. The state launched several effective policies for equal employment, equal pay, and equal benefits that encouraged women’s participation in the labor market. Although these affirmative actions never achieved gender equality, the gender gap in labor force participation was generally smaller in the socialist China than in other countries. Mothers with small children are also able to go to work because of widely available government subsidized daycare centres subsided by the state.

 Since the economic reform in the 1980s, women’s labor force participation has dramatically declined to about 70 percent in the 2010s. 2010 China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) estimated about 26% of urban mothers between ages 20-55 were not currently in the labor force. In contrast, only about 8% of fathers did not work. As the state retreated from providing daycare centres, more mothers with small children leave the labor market to fulfil the caregiving role. The estimated percentage of mothers with children between ages 0-2 who were not working almost reached 50% in 2010 CFPS.  The Mao’s slogan for “women can hold up a half sky” was replaced by the traditional Confucian virtue of “wise wives and good mothers.”

 This opposite trend may not be surprising after considering China’s unique cultural landscape. While women are encouraged to pursue economic independence, it is not powerful enough to challenge the traditional gender-role expectations for women to be responsible for the family. As the government support on caregiving has gradually diminished, women find themselves even harder to balance family and work. Professor Mary Brinton at Harvard University called the conflict in women’s public and private spheres as “pro-work conservative” gender ideology. The work-family conflict has been further aggravated by the increasing emphasis on quality of childcare and intensive parenting. Parents are expected to invest more on children, especially the quality time parents spent with their children through reading, enrichment programs, talent training, and companionship. In China, these highlighted parenting responsibilities fall largely to mothers.

The implications for women’s declining employment rate can be profound. First, women may feel more discouraged from pursuing higher and better education given the blocked pathway to succeed in both the public and the private spheres. This may constitute a huge waste of human capital and add instability to the supply of productive labor for China’s future development. More women, with their rising economic independence and diversified options for self-fulfillment, are considering opting out of marriage, letting alone have children. The declining total fertility rate and the limited responses to the relaxation of the one-child policy in 2015 have already reflected this tendency. The persistent decline in fertility may lead to problems in population aging and lack of productive population. Therefore, women’s declining employment is a very crucial and alarming issue for contemporary China. At the core of it is the nature of gender inequality in China. To what extent women’s economic empowerment can be effectively translated into a more equal and sustainable gender relationship within the marriage may determine the significance and health of families in China.

Dr. Felicia F. Tian is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Fudan University. Her research interests include parenthood, gender, labor market, social networks and social capital, in contemporary China and in a comparative perspective.

 Dr. Zheng Mu is an Assisatent Professor in the Department of Sociology and faculty affiliate of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore. Her areas of specialization include marriage and family, ethnicity, migration, development, and contemporary China.

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