Women in China: Still Waiting for Equality

I have the good fortune to travel to mainland China two or three times a year. As a practicing organization development consultant and trainer for more than thirty years, it is a thrill for me to share my knowledge and experience in China by teaching leadership and consulting skills workshops to Chinese professionals. I have been fascinated with China ever since I taught English there in the 1980s when the country was newly opened to Western tourism and commerce after being closed to the West for decades. I continue to marvel at the changes that the Chinese have accomplished since my first visit over thirty years ago. I have seen the country evolve from a backward Third World country to a First World global power. But, to my surprise, one thing that has not changed is discrimination against women in society and the workplace.

In the 1980s my female Chinese students peppered me with questions about the Western Women’s Liberation Movement. They explained and complained that even though Mao taught that “women hold up half the sky,” women were not really equal in China. In fact, they explained, while women were expected to pursue careers and compete with men in the marketplace, women were also expected to assume sole responsibility for performing housework, raising children, and caring for elderly parents. The women were frustrated in the 1980s and wanted me to tell them how to start a women’s liberation movement in China. Now, fast-forward to today, and I regret to report that the women in my workshops in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou still complain that women are expected to do it all while working — with little or no involvement from their male spouses. In addition, they face stereotypes and social norms that create other barriers for them.

Helen Gao, writing for the New York Times, sheds light on present-day discrimination faced by Chinese women as follows:

  1. Social norms prescribe that the husband should provide the majority of the money for buying a home upon marriage and should also be the sole holder of the title. Gao reports that “a 2012 study found that 70 percent of brides or their families contributed to the purchase of a home, yet a woman’s name appeared on only 30 percent of the deeds.” The divorce rate in China has doubled in recent years, and Chinese women have no right to property if their name is not on the title.
  2. Widespread pregnancy discrimination exists in the workplace in China for women with no children or one child. The lifting of the one-child policy by the government, now allowing couples to have two children, means that women with none or one child have a hard time finding a job. Employers do not want to hire someone who might get pregnant.
  3. The aging of the Chinese population also creates added responsibility for women. With few services provided by the government and no siblings to help with aging parents because of the one-child policy, Goa explains that “wives are often expected to care for their own parents as well as their husbands’,” while working full time.
  4. Unmarried women are stigmatized and often have difficulty finding a job. Because they are unmarried, even if they are divorced, especially if they are thirty or older, they are considered to have “severe personality flaws” or “psychological issues” that make them undesirable hires. The social pressure to be normal by being married and having at least one child is enormous for women.

While some limited public discussion of these issues has begun on social media, and some women are meeting privately in “lean-in” circles, Gao reports that a recent public protest over sexual harassment on public transportation by women’s rights activists was met with “a ruthless state crackdown.” It is still quite dangerous for women to hold public protests to speak out about women’s issues. The women I meet in my workshops are strong and frustrated about the load they must carry and the barriers they face. Perhaps one day they will be able to get their voices heard. Let’s hope it will be soon.


Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at annelitwin.com on November 21, 2016.

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