According to a recent survey, the percentage of women heading up companies in China was 12% (not very high, but still better than the Fortune 500, which reported 4.8% female leadership last year).
Sun Jie from travel giant Trip.com Group is one of the highest profile female CEOs in the country. She is also known for talking about the challenges for corporate leaders faced with the personal choice of having children or focusing on building more of a career (newly rebranded Trip.com is still known by it original name Ctrip in China, see this week’s “China Tourist”).
“It is a woman’s choice whether she wants to be fearless in the workplace or focus on her family. But it is only when she is not being judged or discriminated against for her decision that she can really let go of the burdens and be herself,” Sun told the media.
Sun was also instrumental in making her company the first in China to offer financial assistance to senior executives wanting to freeze their eggs so they don’t have to choose more immediately between having children and a career.
Egg freezing is classified as a supplementary IVF measure in China and only made available to married women who meet strict requirements (such as cases where a patient is about to undergo chemotherapy). Freezing eggs solely for the purpose of preserving or extending a period of fertility is illegal. Women who want this service have had to seek treatment abroad instead (including executives at Sun’s firm).
So when a newspaper in Wuhan reported in October that a local fertility centre had received approvals to provide the same service, the story quickly went viral. Women around the country celebrated it as a major breakthrough, indicating a future when they wouldn’t have to travel overseas for the same treatment.
Their enthusiasm was short-lived. The hospital in Wuhan quickly apologised, saying that the initial statement was misleading and that patients would still need to obey existing regulations before applying to freeze their eggs.
Hubei’s Provincial Health Commission added that the new centre hadn’t been authorised to offer reproductive assistance in the way that many had claimed because the national law remains unchanged.
Why hasn’t China legalised the service for single women? “The legalisation of egg freezing for unmarried but healthy women may further promote the trend of late marriage and delay procreation. Late marriage and even later childbearing could aggravate the problem of an aging population and upend the whole social structure of the country,” a fertility doctor called Lou Xiao told Healthnews21.
Netizens were annoyed. “The decision to procreate is a basic human right,” one wrote on weibo.
“At this rate, I will no longer be able to contribute to the fertility rate in the country to combat an aging population,” another moaned.
There were more nuanced views as well. “Just because we legalise something doesn’t mean we advocate or encourage it,” Liu Changqiu from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences explained. “And besides, from the perspective of prenatal and postnatal care, it is still recommended that women get pregnant at their reproductive age.”
Still, while many have argued that egg-freezing caters almost exclusively to older, wealthier women who want to focus on their careers, there is now a growing acceptance that some women might have other reasons, such as still not finding the right man to build a family with.
Li Si (a pseudonym), 35, recently went to Thailand to freeze her eggs. In an interview with National Business Daily, she admitted her reason for doing so was that she was uncertain about when she would be able to meet the right man to start a family of her own. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped her parents from nagging her about getting married and having children.
“It is too difficult to convince older people. So freezing my eggs could alleviate my current family conflict and give everyone peace of mind. And besides, the technology is nothing new. Many celebrities have done it,” Li said.
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