Gender agenda

Women’s rights take centre stage on TV and at the Two Sessions

Bai Baihe-w

Bai stars in Modern Marriage as a working mother

In her book Forget Having It All, writer Amy Westervelt summed up the dilemma facing working mothers: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.”

It was International Women’s Day on Tuesday and while more people than ever view men and women as equal in the workplace and at home,  perception and reality still don’t always match up. Modern Marriage addresses the challenges working mothers face and has become China’s most highly talked-about drama of the moment both online and off. Many viewers, mostly women, say the show is eerily close to reality. And it may even explain why so many are reluctant to have more children despite the government’s big push to encourage couples to have bigger families.

The show follows the story of a stay-at-home mom as she re-enters the workplace. In the series, actress Bai Baihe plays Shen Huixing, who decides to go back to work now that her daughter is in primary school. Shen soon learns that women with children face an enormous disadvantage relative to their childless peers. For instance, during interviews, prospective employers blatantly point out that they are worried she will have more children. They also express concerns that she will take more sick days and require more time off.

In one scene, the human resources manager asks Shen, “As a mother, how do you juggle your career and family?” Shen snaps, “If I was a father, do I still have to answer this question?”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t help that her husband, whom she met when they were in college, is not actually supportive of her working and complains that she is not giving the family enough attention. Shen retorts: “I studied the same major, received the same education as you and the two of us share a child together. So why is it that every time we talk about our careers, we need to prioritise yours over mine?”

Her female boss Dong Sijia also struggles with a similar problem. When her male colleague misses a deadline at work because he wants to spend more time with his kids on the weekend, other colleagues applaud him for being a good father. On the other hand, when Dong shows up late for work, she’s told she is “putting your child over your career”.

A lot of female viewers say the show really struck a chord with them. “Why is it that while marriage is a matter between two people but in China, raising a child is a matter of just one person?” one asked  rhetorically. “After watching this show, I’m even less inclined to have children,” another added. 

Such sexism in the workplace may have become a dealbreaker for  Chinese women as they weigh up whether to have more children. Indeed, despite the government pulling out all the stops – in late February, the Beijing municipal government began to include for the first time 16 types of assisted reproductive technologies in the state-backed medical insurance scheme to support couples planning to have babies – the ranks of new mothers has disappointed the government. The number of births dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2021.

The country will have to try harder to convince women to have more kids. A study that surveyed working mothers by a group of research institutions in 2020 showed that while women in China contribute nearly 40% of household income, over 90% of them said they believe that having children is detrimental to their career.

As China’s biggest annual political gathering the ‘Two Sessions’ (the NPC and CPPCC) convened this  week, it was clear that women’s rights and how to fix plunging birth rates are high on the Chinese government’s agenda.

For instance, Zhai Meiqing, a representative of the NPC reckoned that the government should offer more preferential policies and welfare measures for women giving birth. Another lawmaker Feng Danlong also suggested that men take mandatory paternity leave instead of extending the length of women’s maternity leave because that would only lead to further discrimination against women in the workplace.

To ease the burden of childcare, Zhang Junting, a political advisor to  the CPPCC, proposed offering free kindergarten tuition for the third child while another suggested free childcare services to help alleviate the burden of parenting.

Other advisers reckon that if the government provides affordable housing for families with three children couples would be more inclined to have kids.

Meanwhile, a proposal made by CPPCC member Wei Zhenling has been getting a lot of headlines. Her idea is to offer pensions to full-time stay-at-home parents since she says  a lot of unpaid work, whether it is raising children or taking care of the elderly, often fall “unfairly” on women, who do not receive enough compensation for these efforts. 

Nevertheless, other feminist activists claim that the proposal would only perpetuate deep-rooted gender roles, placing the bulk of housework and childcare on women, making it even more difficult for them to re-enter the workplace.

But it appears that few think that any of these suggestions, even should they become implemented, will lead to an increase in birth rates.

Some pointed out that many Chinese fathers and mothers are the only-child of their families thanks to the prior One-Child Policy. That means they are also the caretakers for their aging parents – so a couple with three children and four elderly in-laws “must be responsible for taking care of seven people [apart from themselves],” one social commentator wrote.

“I suggest these committee members lead by example, and first give birth to eight children themselves,” one critic suggested on weibo.

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