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Chinese women opting out of the workforce
Women might hold up half China’s sky, but more and more are ditching work schedules for aprons and play dates
For many years, staying at home without a formal job was viewed as shameful for women in China; but now a shift in outlook is seeing many urban women publicly expressing a desire to quit the formal workforce.
At the end of 2010, Tencent and Changjiang Daily surveyed over 20,000 women across China about their professional ambitions. An astounding 40 percent said they wanted to be housewives, 38 percent indicated that they wanted to be professionals, while the remainder expressed no preference at all.
A marked change from decades before when Mao declared that women in China hold up half the sky.
Chinese housewives: victims or beneficiaries of market economy?
There are few academic studies on this recent social phenomenon of urban Chinese women opting to work in the home, however, related research offers a small lens into the trend.
In 2005, Shanghai Women’s Association surveyed women’s job preferences, and found that 10 percent of the 1,000 respondents were actively looking to leave their job without a back-up in mind. That number rises to 14 percent among women aged 30 to 39 years old, who cited an inability to balance work and family responsibilities as their main concern.
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There has been little follow-up research to the 2005 study, but across Shanghai there's ample anecdotal evidence that young women in the prime of their career climb are frustrated with their current situation.
“I feel increasing pressures to balance work and family since being promoted last year,” says Vivian Zhang, a 37-year-old woman with a Shanghai-based securities firm. “Many of my friends share the same feeling.
"Every single time we hear of someone becoming a housewife and escaping from the stressful but meaningless working environment in Shanghai, we're envious. We all think she is very lucky.”
Some housewife friends of mine say their kids ask them to dress as though they were coming from work to pick them up from school. The kids feel like they lose face when other kids find out that moms have nothing to do. — Sandy Luo, working mom
“Generally, women’s ambitions for their careers are reduced by marriage; for men, it's exactly the opposite,” explains labor and human resources Professor Pan Jintang from Renmin University.
“But well-educated women stopping their careers after marriage is a new phenomenon, which was created by China’s transition to market economy in 1990s.”
According to Professor Pan, during China’s planned economy period the government controlled everything, from jobs to manufactures’ sales channels, which created a stress-less working environment, and an abnormal female labor force participation rate -- around 80 percent -- one of the highest in the world.
Vivian Zhang still remembers that when she was little, her mother never worked overtime and had a lot of spare time during office hours to dote on her.
“I don’t think she needed to quit [to raise me]," recalls Zhang. "Although she didn't work hard, she wasn't at risk of being fired. And those who worked harder didn’t earn much more than her.”
However, the market economy changed everything.
When competition between companies started in 1990s, many employees lost their jobs, and almost 60 percent of those newly unemployed were women.
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“Some lost their jobs, and today others have to work harder,” says Pan, “thus creating a situation where well-educated women want to quit the workforce to seek for an easier lifestyle or to look after their families.”
Beryl Wang, who graduated from Shanghai's renowned Fudan University 10 years ago, chose to work in a minor support role at a multinational company after giving birth and since then has cut out work completely.
“It’s obvious why women are scaling back -- if there's no help from your kid's grandparents and no place to watch them, either the father or the mother needs to make some sacrifices,” says Wang. “For example, someone needs to reduce the number of business trips. Generally, women make these sacrifices voluntarily.”
These kinds of "sacrifices" on the job often create a salary gap between working spouses, which are sometimes drastic enough that it makes sense, as in Wang’s situation, for one parent to stay at home.
When Wang and her husband realized that one of them needed to stay at home when their daughter entered primary school, it was an easy choice for Wang to make.
“My husband earns four times more than I do. If it was the opposite, he would be a stay-at-home father, but it’s not how things work,” she says.
While some made sacrifices, others benefited from the market economy.
“Some women in my generation also wanted to be stay-at-home moms, but they couldn’t realize this dream,” says Lu Ying, a 67-year-old professor at the Women and Gender Research Center of Zhongshan University.
Before the 1990s, China adhered to an urban labor policy dubbed “low salary, more jobs” ("低收入, 广就业"), which aimed to help avoid unemployment in the country with an historic excess labor supply.
“That policy kept wages low so it was almost impossible to rely on only one partner’s salary,” explains Lu. “But the market economy reform created some super rich, and, in recent years, helped the middle class emerge in large cities like Shanghai, and thus offered women the choice to stay at home.”
Kids are above all
Although market forces are driving some women away from their jobs, others are choosing to return home for their children's benefit.
“Many professionals, like me, feel that it’s not worth sacrificing their careers for their husbands, but if it is for your kids, it is more than worth it,” says Shanghai-based young professional Carrie Yang, who has a master's degree from a Swiss university and is now a stay-at-home mom.
In recent years, new mothers wishing to staying at home for a year or more to look after their newborns could be found across China, and their decision to do so was heavily protected by Chinese maternity laws; but many are taking this time off, and then staying home.
This is in stark contrast to previous generations when young mothers simply let grandparents step in to look after their kids as they quickly headed back to work.
A recent survey by online portal ifeng.com, which included 8,000 women from across China, reported that 43 percent of respondents were willing to quit their jobs to look after their kids themselves.
“When I was born, my parent sent me to my grandparents’ home until I was six years old, and being away from my parents during that time in my life, I feel, had a negative impact on my personality. I don’t want my daughter to have the same experience,” says Yang.
Sanny Luo, who chose to quit her job when her child entered primary school, says her choice to stay at home was made to ensure a better education for her child.
Generally, women’s ambitions for their careers are reduced by marriage, for men it's just the opposite. But, well-educated women stopping their careers after marriage is a new phenomenon, which was created by China’s transition to market economy in 1990s.— Pan Jintang, labor and human resources professor, Renming University
“Chinese schools put at least 40 students in one class, making it difficult for the teacher to give a child the necessary attention he or she needs to succeed and develop. So, I need to spend more time with my son to explore his own strength after his school hours,” says Luo of her decision to quit mid-career.
Although young mothers leave the workforce for a variety of reasons, there is usually a common thread: outside influence.
“Young parents in large Chinese cities are more or less influenced by Western child-education books, and thus many of them care for both a kid’s mental health and academic performance,” says Zhao Yuanhong, a child education counselor.
“They think that they need more time with their kid, which causes some new parents to quit their jobs, especially women.”
Calls for respect
All the housewives quoted here say their husbands support their decision to leave the workforce, with many taking up lighter, home-based work like operating online shops or online stock trading, to avoid fully depending on their husbands’ salary.
“Young couples in which both people are born after the 1970s [often referred to as China’s “post-1980s generation"] are more easily accepting of multiple values, which is different from the past generations who have been educated to devote themselves to their country instead of their families,” says Professor Lu Ying.
Although China’s post-1980s generation are able to face the shift in women’s roles, many women find that speaking about it to their parents is a different matter.
“My father, for example, can’t face the reality that I’m the housewife. He thinks I waste my education and all money he spent on me,” says Yang.
Sometimes, pressures also come from kids.
“Some housewife friends of mine say their kids ask them to dress as though they were coming from work to pick them up from school,” says working mom Sandy Luo.
“The kids feel like they lose face when other kids find out that their moms have nothing to do. This astonishes me,” she continues.
Perhaps China’s rules as to what defines "success" are so deeply rooted that it can’t be changed in the short term, even with China’s current generation embracing the shift.
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Professor Lu Ying disagrees with those who are quick to criticize stay-at-home mothers, taking speaking engagements across the country to try convince people that contributions to the family are another form of contributing to society, so today’ current waves of housewives should be treated with more respect.
The Chinese government is slowing picking up on the trend, and in 2010 decreed unemployed wives of male urban employees could enjoy the same birth insurance and benefits as working women.
This was seen by many as a policy breakthrough to support the emerging housewife group.
More family-friendly policies are expected to be released according to Chinese policy watchers in the next five years as social stability moves to the forefront of the plans released at the Fourth Session of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top political advisory body.