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Women in China: Professional Gender Lines, Work, and Family post image

Women in China: Professional Gender Lines, Work, and Family

An investigation into professional gender lines, the rise of salary women, the pressures of family role, and the “third gender.”

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“Men and women are equal in China,” a young Chinese guy told me.

“I look at your government and it’s mostly all men,” I responded.

“Yes,” he answered without a rebuttal.

“So men and women do the same jobs?” I kept at it. It seemed to me as if this guy was blowing some smoke at me, saying what he was taught to say rather that what is obvious.

“Both men and women work,” he said, stepping around my question.

“But who usually makes more money?”

“Usually, the man will make more.”


This young guy, who was probably not a day over 22 was sitting in a cafe next to his girlfriend. I continued digging into him with the talons of interrogation.

“If you two got married and she made more money than you what would you do?”

He thought seriously for a moment, then replied, “I would work very hard to make more money.”

“Would you feel shame?”

“Yes, I think I would feel shame,” he replied sheepishly.

There were other college students sitting around our table, so I opened our conversation up to them. I asked them what jobs they wanted to have after they graduated. Without variation, the guys said that they wanted to be things like electrical engineers for the government and businessmen while the women all claimed to be shooting for jobs in accounting or other relatively low level positions. This was a cultural pattern that I would soon learn more about.

“Professions in China seem to be pretty gender neutral,” a friend who’d just arrived in the Middle Kingdom observed. Speaking in relative terms, he was right: professional gender lines are crossed far more readily in China than in most other countries in the world. There are woman bus, taxi, and truck drivers; there are male kindergarten teachers;  there are woman construction workers; most of the hairdressers are male; women are cops; girls go through the same compulsory military training as boys; women are becoming airline pilots; and both sexes prosper in business. This is a culture where “men’s work” and “women’s work” have been blended together very closely. While there are still patterns that select for men doing certain types of work and women doing other types, access to most professions seem rarely barred to either sex.

“Women work in China”

In the Communist era before reform, the responsibilities of women took a drastic turn. It was clear to ideologues of the time that women have two hands just like men and that both sexes can work in tandem to build and maintain the society they were engineering. Mao said that, “Women hold up half the sky,” and his policies aimed to prove it. State sponsored child care and education systems were put in place, and women were placed firmly within the communal work system.

“Mao’s revolution inflicted enormous pain upon society,” says Isobel Coleman in an article on the Daily Beast. “But it did empower women.”

The communist era transformed women into workers, gave them free child care, and free access to abortions in the name of state cohesiveness, prowess, and progress. Fast forward through the reform and into the globalization era and this arrangement isn’t much different. Women make up 46% of China’s workforce and 77% of women work out of the home. Women still work in factories along side men, they farm, do all matter of manual labor, and it is not uncommon to see women doing jobs in China that they would face a broader barrier doing  in many other places in the world. As far as access to employment here is concerned, I would not go as far as to call it gender neutral or even gender equal, but would rather use the term “gender permeable.”

“Do women want to work, or would they rather stay home and raise their children?” I asked Da Xie, a 30 year old teacher.

In China, grandparents tend to be the primary caregivers of young children, as both parents typically work full time.

She had just told me a moment before that she felt that it was very bad that women are often not the primary caregivers to their children because they are too busy working, and how it was not good for grandparents to be raising children (“They are old and they think in old ways. They don’t know anything,” she said), but now she was taking a different approach that seemed overtly contradictory to me.

“Yes, we want to work!” she squealed. “If a woman doesn’t work and stays home all day she is called huanglian po, ugly yellow face. If I don’t go to work and just stayed home I think my husband would get sick of looking at me and get bored.”

Needless to say, the housewife pretty much doesn’t exist in China. If a woman stays home and takes care of her children the Chinese have a different word for her: unemployed.

On the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, issued by the World Economic Forum, China ranked 69th out of 135 countries. This middle of the road figure shows the economic scenario for women in China rather well. In terms of gender equality, China does not rank nearly as high as the Scandinavian countries, but is light years ahead of Japan (ranked 101), Turkey (124), and most South Asian, Central American, and Middle Eastern countries. For comparative scale, the Canada and the United States ranked 21st and 22nd respectively.

What is interesting here is that Chinese society is one that often selects favorably for women willing to fill less professionally equitable roles than their spouses rather than one that imposes broad gender barriers.

“Do Chinese women make the same amount of money as men?” I asked Da Xie.

“Sometimes,”she replied, “but I think it is common for them to make a little less, but not much. There are some jobs that I can do because I’m a woman and others that I really can’t do.”

“Do the jobs that men do get paid more money?” I followed up.

“It depends, but the really good jobs mostly men do them.”

“Are there some women who do these really good jobs?”

“Of course, but it is not as common.”

This conversation brought me face to face with a force governing the sexes in China that has far less to do with the professional setting than the family unit. China has a relatively liberal society made up of very conservative family units. In China, the family structure is governed strictly by tradition, with which new lifestyles — such as women running companies and focusing on their careers rather than tending to the home — does not often run flush. The family unit creates a far lower ceiling for women advancing professionally than the workplace ever could.

The pressure to marry appropriately

A woman in China can climb the ranks of many prominent professions, but if she gets too high, makes too much money, or focuses too much time on her work (which is often essential) her home life is prone to feeling the consequences. Career women in China run askance to the path their culture laid out for them and tend to wind up very much misunderstood, and finding a suitable marriage partner sometimes proves difficult because of it.

“In China, the husband makes more money but the wife controls the money,” a Chinese friend once explained as a way to justify the tendency for women to be paid lower salaries.

The man should be the provider here, the husband should make more money than the wife. Though this is a structure that many cultures err towards, it is very rigidly enforced in China. If a man’s wife makes more money than he does he may find himself teased or otherwise embarrassed. It’s an awkward scenario where both parties seem to feel a touch of shame: the man loses face because his wife is a better provider than he is and the woman loses face because she slum dogged it by marrying someone she outperforms.

Therefore, if a woman earns a high income and is highly educated she will usually want to find a husband who has a higher level of education and/ or makes more money than she does. So as a woman climbs the professional ladder her potential mating pool likewise dwindles. It’s socially acceptable for men to marry “down,” but women should always marry “up.” Though there are 118 men for every 100 women in China, female professionals sometimes have a difficult time finding suitable marriage partners, as this is a culture where hypergamy is the rule:

“A-class women don’t match with B-class men.”

To put it bluntly, sugar mamas are not highly sought in the Sino world.

Many women in this situation end up choosing a career over a husband and family, and those who find themselves unmarried upon entering their 30s are sometimes branded as sheng nu: leftover women.

It’s not that women can’t rise in Chinese society, it’s not that there is an overt and powerful sexist stigma against women becoming successful professionals, it’s that women who choose to devote themselves to their profession rather than taking a backseat to a husband and cultivating a household goes against the traditional grains of this culture. The shock here is not that women are doing what is traditionally men’s work, but what they are giving up in exchange for this: a woman’s family life. It is often said in this culture that people cannot be happy without a family.

‘I always dread Chinese New Year,’ says Yang Ziyang, a 32-year-old talent agent earning in excess of one million RMB (£100,000) a year, ‘because that’s when my extended family come over to the house and they all want to know why I’m not married yet. I tell them it’s because I have standards that I’m not willing to lower.’

Touching an expensive-looking bangle on her wrist, she goes on, ‘I think my parents understand a bit more – they just want me to be happy – but my aunties always say things like, “Oh, do you remember that girl you went to school with? She got married last year and now she’s pregnant!” It’s very frustrating.’ –Business Insider

This is often an all or nothing society. Half measures are not rewarded. Moderation does not seem to be the goal. If you try to rise in a profession you put all of yourself into it. If you put all of yourself into your work then there is often little left over at the end of the day. This is how salary men AND salary women live in this country. The difference is that salary women have other roles and obligations they are expected to fill as well, which are very difficult to do given the workload and singularity of purpose required to rise in their professions.

Likewise, there are currently 7 million never-married, urban born women in China between the ages of 25 and 34. This is 21 times the population of Iceland.

The pressure to marry appropriately is extreme, and the consequences are sometimes dire. Women who marry down (or even) often do so outside of the well wishes of their families, which adds another degree of pressure onto an already complicated system.

Da Xie once explained the parameters of her marriage to me. Though she is hesitant to admit it, she actually married for love — rather than for socio-economic position. Her family did not approve of the marriage, as they felt her spouse did not make enough money, was not educated enough, did not come from a prominent enough family, and did not show the proper promise that they wanted in a son in law. My friend married this man anyway and ended up virtually excommunicated from her family. She blew it.

“It was years before my family and I talked again. We talk now but it is not the same.”

Da Xie did not seem happy in her marriage for other reasons as well, and, ironically, they seemed remarkably similar to the ones her parents had warned her about prior to tying the knot.

“My husband is not a typical Chinese man. He doesn’t want to get a job, he doesn’t try to make a lot of money. He keeps coming up with plans for businesses but they never work. So I have to work hard and make money.”

Hypergamy is a system that is hardwired into this culture.

Music video called “No House, No Car” about how Chinese women don’t want to marry men without a lot of money.

The third gender

In modern China, it’s a punchline that a third gender has arisen:

“In China, we have a saying that there are three kinds of people in the world: men, women, and educated women,” Da Xie spoke. She then explained how highly educated, career oriented women who have high-paying, high-profile jobs often live a lifestyle that is very different than how most of their brethren live.

Many of these “third gender” women are making very large strides. Six of the 13 richest self made women in the world are Chinese. 19% of women in management positions in China are CEOs. Twenty percent of managers in China are women, compared to 40 percent in the United States, and 8 percent in Japan. There is even a saying now, yin sheng, yang shuai, (阴盛阳衰) which means that the female force is on the way up and male force is in decline.


It is not my intention to paint a picture that makes it seem as if women in China have the exact same opportunities as men which they can access just as easily. Generally speaking, it is my impression that women must fight a little harder for each rung they ascend than their male counterparts, but the fact of the matter is that women are not a novelty in the professional setting here.  Women are not inherently under-respected in China, and this serves to curb the gender gap in a big way.

But while many women are aspiring to rise into the highest professional levels their country has to offer, they are statistically not keeping pace with their male counterparts. For the record, in the Communist era, women on average made 80% of the income men did, today this amount is around 69%.

The major hurdles that seem to inhibit a woman’s rise through the professional ranks generally center around family obligation. Marriage, as was previously discussed above, is a major barrier, and many professional women have been known to quit their jobs or to refuse to take promotions in order to make themselves more able to cultivate a family. Another issue is that many companies are hesitant to hire a woman if they fear that she may soon become pregnant. As there is a tendency here for women to get married soon after they graduate from university, this means that their prime job hunting and “baby having” years run in tandem, which puts them at a severe disadvantage when pitted against their male peers.

But, ultimately, China is a place where women can rise in the ranks of professions traditionally dominated by men, but it’s also a country where women often must make big sacrifices to do so. All lifestyles are perhaps made up of ultimatums and mutually exclusive options, but to chose between a family or a career, tradition or modernity, family or individual ambition, is extreme. But these are the decisions that many women in the modern China are making. This is a country and a culture that is in massive transition: old ways are meeting head on against the new, and many people are being caught in the middle.


Filed under: Articles, China, Women

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

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  • Harold D November 18, 2012, 8:13 pm

    That’s really interesting, especially as we tend to think of Asian women as being subordinant and dominated by men.

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  • John November 23, 2012, 10:14 am

    Very interesting regarding the status of women, politics makes things complicated especially in china.


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