Women Power Up? Not Yet

Decades after Mao Zedong claimed that “women hold up half the sky”, the women’s rights movement in China is facing challenges. Ke Qianting at The Global Times says that  cultural and systematic elements as well as the lack of gender education in schools are impeding women’s development. Melissa Korn at the Wall Street Journal gives a detailed account of the discrimination against women in state-owned enterprises:

Chinese women continue to make strides in corporate settings, but they’re still a rare sight at the helm of Chinese companies – particularly at state-owned enterprises (SOEs) — according to a new study by Yan Zhang, a management professor at China Europe International Business School.

Among companies listed on the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges, the proportion of female board chairs increased a modest 0.3 percentage points, to 4% in 2010 from 3.7% in 1997, while women made up just 5.6% of CEOs in 2010 (compared with 4.6% in 1997), Ms. Zhang found.

Despite the Chinese government’s official stance that women are just as capable as men in the workplace, women fare quite a bit worse at state-run companies: They made up 5.4% of non-SOE board chairs in 2010, but just 2.9% at SOEs, and they filled 13.7% of director seats at non-SOEs, compared with 10% in SOEs.

At the same time, higher barriers are set for female students in college admissions. Caixin reported last month that several girls shaved their heads bald to protest against gender discrimination in late August. Didi Kirsten Tatlow at New York Times investigates further:

On the last day of August, Xiong Jing and two friends shaved their heads in Beijing to protest a growing trend in Chinese universities in which women increasingly must score higher than men to get in and face unofficial but widespread gender quotas that favor men.

[...] The practice began at least as early as 2005, according to Chinese news reports, and was in response to the rising numbers of women getting into universities, where they are starting to outstrip men in some areas, especially languages.

[...] “In science courses at the China University of Political Science and Law, the bar is at 632 points for women but 588 for men,” the newspaper said, providing other similar examples from other colleges.

[...] The rules affected students like Ouyang Le, according to Ms. Xiong. A fresh graduate from a Guangzhou high school, Ms. Ouyang had wanted to study at the University of International Relations. She scored 614 points on the gaokao, but as a woman, needed 628. If Ms. Ouyang had been a man, she would have needed just 609.

As Leta Hong Fincher showed in a recent International Herald Tribune op-ed, women are also discouraged from attaining higher education by official voices, including the All-China Women’s Federation, which encourages women to marry and start a family before acquiring an advanced degree.

The underrepresentation of women transfers up to the political arena as well. As a result, feminists hope that the possible promotion of Liu Yandong, the only female member in the 25-member Politburo, could send a positive signal in gender equity. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

Besuited and fiercely disciplined, with a powerful family background and experience in the Communist Youth League, Liu Yandong appears much like other cadres jockeying for position in China’s pending leadership transition, bar one very obvious difference: her gender.

She is the only female member of the 25-member politburo and would be the first woman to reach its standing committee, the country’s top political body. Though she is regarded as a long shot, “the door is not closed”, said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution.

[...I]n Chinese politics women remain a glaring absence. The annual session of the National People’s Congress shows banks of dark-suited men; only a fifth of the largely rubber-stamp legislature is female, and barely one-sixteenth of the party’s central committee. There is one female provincial party secretary and one governor. At the grassroots 2%-3% of village party chiefs and 22% of committee members are female.

Feminists say better representation is crucial to addressing enduring, or even increasing, inequality. Many fear women face a deterioration in their status, citing changes to marital property rights that have disadvantaged women, incomes shrinking in comparison to men’s and increasing gender stereotyping.

However, other critics believe that Liu Yandong is essentially no more than a rubber stamp and her chances of bypassing the systematic obstacles are slim. From Leslie Hook at The Financial Times:

“She seldom . . . expresses her political opinions. Her role is not at the head of the table,” said Pu Xingzu, a politics professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

[...] Liu has never been a provincial governor, a key resume item for most of China’s top leaders. Her age could also count against her, because the party prefers to install younger people. The current nine-member standing committee could be shrunk to seven, reducing her chances further.

 

See more on the women’s rights movement in China via CDT.