Ask Mei

One quarter of the sky?

The changing lives of Chinese women

One quarter of the sky?

As mentioned in one of my previous columns (see WiC325), I believe one of the few positive legacies of Mao Zedong’s rule was lifting women’s status under his motto “women hold up half of the sky”. It was no small feat considering that thousands of years of Confucian tradition holds that “men are superior to women”. In my childhood I saw both my grandmothers hobbling around on three-inch-long bound feet and heard about the excruciating pain they had endured to go through the inhumane foot-binding process. I couldn’t help feeling lucky and thankful to be born in the “new China”.

Growing up among strong women, I actu­ally developed an opposing discrimination against men as I thought women were much more intelligent, resilient, hard-working and resourceful. My mother, for example, held a job as demanding as my father’s and earned almost as much as he did, yet she also did almost all the chores at home, including cooking, cleaning, sewing, managing the money, fixing the stove, caring for her mother-in-law, taking children to the doctors, and so forth. My father’s job at home was just being there and providing critical opinions on her domestic activity. I once asked my mother, “Why do we need men if they don’t help but only criticise women who do all the work?”

During the post-Mao reform era with massive privatisation of state owned enterprises, some older women lost their “iron-rice bowls” through layoffs and early retirements, but many more younger women, mostly from rural inland regions, got jobs in the private sector and provided much needed labour for the rapidly growing economy. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Chang’s book Factory Girls offers an excellent study of the millions of Chinese women who toiled in the “workshop of the world” during the 1990s and 2000s (see WiC6). While China has risen from extreme poverty (per capita GDP of $89.50 in 1960) to a better-off society (per capita GDP reaching $8,123 in 2016), the mentality of many of its women, especially urban women, has changed from that of my generation.

While my generation is still imbued with a sense of “independence” and “self-reliance” in our DNA, today’s young women seem to be much more pragmatic and more confident in “asking for” (instead of “working for”) what they want. A recent survey by the dating website Zhenai shows that 54% of women said they preferred the men they date to earn twice what they do, and 30% said the men should earn three times as much. A female contestant on a TV dating show said a few years ago that she’d “rather cry on the back seat of [her boyfriend’s] BMW than laugh on the back seat of [his] bicycle”. The phrase became a hit as it resonated with society at large.

Statistics from the World Bank also show that the female labour participation rate in China has dropped from 73% in 1990 to 63% in 2016, a more dramatic decline than in any other country except for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand.

So, what has caused this reversal of Chinese women joining the workforce? Are they giving up their half of the sky? Here are my general conclusions.

Firstly, when people get wealthier and more knowledgeable about the world, they have more choices of how to avoid working in traditional manufacturing sectors and opting for employment in the grey economy, which is harder to capture in official data. Many young women aspire to work as daigou (purchasing representatives) or wanghong (internet hosts), making better incomes on easier freelance lifestyles.

Secondly, decades of the One-Child Policy (which came to an end in 2015) have created a generation of well-pampered princesses and a massive gender imbalance (there were 33.6 million more men than woman in China last year). Many women, especially well-educated urbanites, who have grown up being indulged by parents and grandparents, are demanding similar cosseted treatment from their male suitors.

Thirdly, with the revival of some more traditional aspects of Chinese culture, some of the older attitudes towards gender have come back to life. For instance, the Zhenai survey shows that almost 90% of women and half of men believe that males should be the primary breadwinners in the family. It’s also rather common to hear that more women are willing to become the mistresses of wealthier men these days.

However, this doesn’t mean Chinese women are throwing in the towel on gender equality. On the contrary, I have come across plenty of positive news about their growing influence in China today. The rapid development of technology, especially the internet and social media, has helped women to pursue business opportunities on multiple platforms. China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba says that more than half of the sellers on Taobao are female and that the storefronts that carry the highest ratings are more usually owned by women. Additionally, more than half of the microloans distributed by Alibaba-affiliated Ant Financial go to women too.

The inaugural Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs released earlier this year also shows that nearly 31% of business owners in China are women, which puts the country into eighth position globally. In another interesting insight, the survey suggests that 60% of China’s female business owners are ‘opportunity-driven’, compared with 40% that are ‘necessity-driven’.

Sadly, the political arena presents a less welcoming picture. For instance, there are no women in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the highest body of the ruling Communist Party. And only a quarter of the Party’s 88 million members are female, according to the Party’s website. So even if Mao did think that Chinese women are holding up half the sky, they are definitely not holding up half of the Party he helped found.



A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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