By Zolzaya Erdenebileg

Female employment in China used to be moving in a positive direction. In the late 1970s, almost 10 years after Chairman Mao famously remarked that “women hold up half the sky,” about 90 percent of working-age women in cities were participating in the workforce.

In 1980, China was one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations International Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW). In 1992 and 1994, gender equality was integrated into Chinese law, with the signing of Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women and the Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care.

But recent statistics show the composition of the workforce is becoming increasingly unbalanced. Female employment rates in China are steadily decreasing. According to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), the work participation rate of women dropped nine percentage points from 73 percent in 1990 to 64 percent in 2014.

Labor Participation, Women in ChinaAccording to the 2010 national census, the rate of employment for women between the ages of 20 and 59 in 1990 was 84.3 percent. In 2000, it dropped to 79.5 percent, and in 2010, it fell further to 73.6 percent. Statistics from the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), a state-sponsored women’s rights organization, are about the same or lower — it put the participation rate at 71.1 percent in 2010.

Nevertheless, China’s female employment participation rate is on par with, and sometimes better than, many developed countries. In 2014, Canada’s female employment participation rate was 61.4 percent; Norway was 61.2 percent; Sweden was 60.2 percent; and the United States was 56 percent.

The drop is partly explained by China’s economic transformation over the past two decades. As the country moved away from labor-intensive employment to consumer goods and services employment, women’s participation in the workforce decreased. However, China’s shift to a service and consumption driven economy does not explain all aspects of the country’s falling female employment rate. For a fuller picture, government policies and social pressures must be taken into account.

Urban vs. Rural Female Employment

China’s overall employment rate includes separate statistics for women in urban and in rural areas. This is significant for two reasons. First, despite rapid industrialization during the past three decades, China is still heavily dependent on the agricultural sector, which employs roughly equal numbers of men and women. Second, China’s future is highly urban. It is projected that close to 70 percent of China’s population will live in cities by 2030.Therefore, employment rates for urban women are the best indicators to track gender equality within the workplace. As seen in the table below, urban women’s employment rate is much lower than the rate for rural women.

Female empolyment in China 2

In 2010, according to census data, the employment rate for urban women aged 20 to59 was 60.8 percent—a full 16.6 percentage points lower than in 1990. On the other hand, rural women employment decreased only 2.7 percentage points, despite heavy industrialization between 1990 and 2010.

Resurgence of Traditional Gender Norms

Decreases in female workers in China comes during a gradual resurgence of traditional gender norms that place the majority of household and childrearing responsibilities on women. The perception that the public domain is for men, and the domestic domain is for women  has increased 7.7 percentage points among men and 4.4 percentage points among women since 2000. There has been a concerted effort to encourage women to focus on marriage and family instead of careers, most prominently through the dissemination of the term “leftover women.”  “Leftover women” refers to women over 27 who have high levels of education and successful careers, but remain unmarried. While some believe the term is complimentary, it was initially a derogatory term used to galvanize well-educated women to marry and procreate.

Female-friendly policies have also eroded. Systems to aid working mothers, such as subsidized health care, largely disappeared after the economic reforms of the 1990s. While 72 percent of mothers between the ages of 25 and 34 with children under the age of 6 are employed, economic reforms in the 1990s reduced the number of options available to working mothers. In particular, government support for subsidized childcare has significantly decreased. According to the 2006 Chinese enterprise social responsibility survey, less than 20 percent of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and 5.7 percent of all enterprises provided childcare for employees.

Women who have not yet had children also face discrimination during the hiring process. In China, maternity leave is paid and must be a minimum of 98 days. For some employers, this is a disincentive to hire women. The ACWF survey found that 72 percent of women believe they were not hired or passed over for promotion because of their sex; 75 percent believe they were fired because they were married or became pregnant.

Another limitation within the workplace is mandatory retirement ages. For women in blue-collar positions, the required retirement age is 50. For women in white-collar positions, the age is 55. For some women hired in special positions, like college professorships, the retirement age matches those of urban men, which is 60. Some employers use this policy to justify discriminatory hiring practices.

In addition, there is a prevalent gender pay gap in China. On average, women earn 35 percent less than men for similar work. This places China near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2015 Global Gender Gap Index, ranking 91st out of 145. In urban areas, women’s average annual income is equivalent to 67.3 percent of men’s income; in rural areas, it is only 56 percent.

Lacking Representation

The underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in China means the gender gap is likely to widen even further. The WEF report found that while women outpaced men in educational attainment, political empowerment numbers were very low. In 2015, the female-to-male ratio for enrollment in education beyond high school was 1.15. However, the ratio for positions in parliament was 0.31; and for ministerial positions, it was 0.13. No woman has ever been a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee.

The situation is better in the corporate world, but still has ample room for growth. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Women’s Leadership and Corporate Performance, in China only 4percent of company chairs, and 5.6 percent of CEOs are women.

Looking Ahead

Despite the inauspicious state of female employment in China, more women are getting higher degrees, making them more competitive. Already, women outnumber men in China’s higher education system. In 2013, 50.7 percent of students enrolled in tertiary education were women. In 2014, China had the highest number of Graduate Management Admissions Tests (GMATs) taken by female citizens: 37,631 Chinese women took the exam, comprising 65 percent of total Chinese test takers that year.

Uncommon, but well-publicized rulings, indicate a potential evolution in policy to address gender imbalance in the workplace. On December 18, 2013, China settled its first gender discrimination lawsuit in Beijing. In the case, a women named Cao Ju filed suit against the Juren School, a private training institute, for rejecting her job application on the basis of her sex. While she settled for 30,000 RMB, the case drew wide attention to the issue of discrimination against women in the workplace, raising hopes that vague policy wording will be backed up by tangible consequences.


This article was first published on China Briefing.Since its establishment in 1992, Dezan Shira & Associates has been guiding foreign clients through Asia’s complex regulatory environment and assisting them with all aspects of legal, accounting, tax, internal control, HR, payroll and audit matters. As a full-service consultancy with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India and emerging ASEAN, we are your reliable partner for business expansion in this region and beyond.For inquiries, please email us at [email protected] 

Posted by Zolzaya Erdenebileg