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The World of Work for Women in China

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For the first time in 60 years, China’s population is shrinking. As the average age of China's working-age population continues to rise, encouraging childbearing has become the new bellwether, and this is bringing about a change for China’s working women. A number of cities have introduced complementary measures to encourage childbearing, focusing on granting of child-care subsidies and new parental leave. But are these policies making things better?

Traditional barriers

Influenced by Chinese philosopher Confucius, a notable feature of East Asian societies has been the different status of genders. Historically, women in China were required to obey their fathers' orders when unmarried and their husbands' orders after marriage; they had no choice or say in family life and lacked the right to inherit family names and property. And they certainly weren't in control of their own work life or careers. The world of work has since opened up for women in China, but there is still some way to go.

Even after industrialisation over the past four decades, traces of the gender divide remains in these Confucius-influenced cultures. Based on the Global Gender Gap Report 2022 by the World Economic Forum, China ranked No.102, compared with other prominent Asian economies, such as South Korea at No.99 and Japan in No.116.

This gap is reflected in salaries in China. According to the 2022 survey on the current situation of Chinese women in the workplace published by Zhaopin, a Chinese recruitment platform, the average monthly salary of Chinese women in the workplace is 8,545 yuan. This is 12% lower than the men's average monthly salary of 9,776 yuan.

They also face a glass-ceiling. Out of 100 employed women, only about 34 hold management positions compared with about 41 of men (per 100 employed). There is also a perception problem regarding women's ability. Only 5.7% of workers rated women as "strong leaders", compared with 51.5% for men.

Women also face extreme pressures relating to their physical appearance. Facial anxiety was reported in more than 61.5% of women in the workplace, compared with 35.4 % of men. When asked whether appearance can affect a women’s career development, 82.2% of working women and 77.3% of working men in China agreed. Women still suffer from unfair ’higher requirements’ that don't apply to men. This focus on appearance is reflected in Chinese CVs where almost all companies require a picture of the applicant to be attached.

Improvements in education

However, despite this gap, rapid economic development has helped to undermine some of the patriarchal social structures in China. Historically, only Chinese men were able to take part in the imperial examinations – the elite examinations which determined access to government office.

In contemporary China, this has changed dramatically, with women now receiving the same access to education as men (though parents with more than one child may still prioritize sons, especially in more rural areas). According to the 2022 data from Zhaopin, Chinese working women are more highly educated than men, with 55.9 % of women having a bachelor's degree or above, much higher than the 33.6 % for men.

The family dilemma

Like women across the world, in China, women feel they need to make difficult personal choices in order to succeed at work. For example, 40% of professional women say they plan to marry later or not to marry at all. The data from Zhaopin shows that marriage has a greater impact on women in the workplace, and married women would take a more “cautious” approach to marriage if they could choose again. According to the survey, 32.1% of married men would like to marry earlier, significantly higher than 20.4% of married women.

Rather than make things better, new policies and incentives brought in by the government seem to have made things worse for China’s working women. Despite the gradual loosening of family planning policies that restricted the amount of children families could have in China, only 0.8% of working women plan to have three children.

Higher subsidies and longer maternity leave have not solved the problem of women's employment. Instead, they have led to higher recruitment costs and greater discrimination against women by companies who are reluctant to fork out. Indeed, the data shows that 60% of Chinese women were asked about marriage and childbearing intentions in their job application, far higher than the 32.3% of men.

Today's society needs more women-friendly legislation and policies if it is to share social production and economic growth more equitably for professional women in China.

Yves Ding is a 2022 MSc Finance student studying at the ICMA Centre. She was one of four recipients of the 2022 Women in Finance scholarship.

Published 28 January 2023
Flexible working Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

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