China’s Gender Gap Reaches from Rural Areas to Cities

A recent report found that China is home to the highest number of female self-made entrepreneurs in the world. While this is certainly good news for those entrepreneurs, it does not give a complete picture of the complicated realities faced by both rural and urban women in China. Leta Hong-Fincher writes in the New York Times that strong employment numbers, which show percentages of working women on par with the U.S. and European countries, are skewed by the divide between urban and rural China. She writes:

The 2010 census put the percentage of working-age women in the work force at 74. The figure stacks up well against other countries such as the United States and Australia, where about 75 percent of working-age women were employed in 2010. In Sweden, the female labor force participation for 2010 was 87.5 percent; France, 84 percent; Britain, 79 percent.

But China’s figure is high because it includes women working in the countryside, and unlike developed countries, nearly half of China’s population is still rural. The picture for urban women is very different.

China’s urban employment rate for working-age women fell to a new low of 60.8 percent in 2010, down from 77.4 percent 20 years earlier, according to census figures. The 2010 rate was 20.3 percentage points lower than that of men.

This troubling trend matters because the effort to move people from the countryside to the cities is a top policy priority of China’s new leaders — one that they see as crucial to boosting economic growth. [Source]

In BusinessWeek, Christina Larson makes a similar point and discusses challenges faced by women trying to move up China’s corporate ladder in a male-dominated corporate culture. Larson argues that China needs a movement similar to the Lean In movement launched by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg:

What explains China’s growing pay disparity? Wang Xiaolin, director of research at the International Poverty Reduction Center in China, told the People’s Daily that women more often chose to work in less lucrative industries. “Many female migrant workers stay at the low end of the service sector, such as working as waitresses in restaurants, while men take more positions in the manufacturing industry.” While this may be true, Wang’s explanation doesn’t sufficiently address the obstacles that college-educated professional women confront.

One hurdle may be the particular nature of China’s modern business landscape, which emphasizes guanxi—stoking a web of interlocking personal and professional connections. “Guanxi itself is such a male world,” explains Susan Brownell, an anthropologist specializing in China at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “Businessmen go to KTV bars and often patronize prostitutes together. It’s hard for women to share the same bonding experiences.” That’s why at least one successful female business owner, bowing to the fact that male clients expect to be wined and dined at karaoke bars and massage parlors (where there is at least the possibility of paying for sex), has designated a young man on her staff to take out clients on her behalf. Her solution is crafty, but it’s a depressing form of accommodation. “Successful women in China must develop tactics to handle the male aspects of guanxi,” says Brownell.

As both Hong-Fincher and Larson make clear, China’s rapid urbanization is hitting women especially hard as it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find rewarding and lucrative work in urban areas. The women left behind in rural areas, meanwhile, are seeing some improvements in their lives as urbanization takes hold in society, but many challenges remain. Suicide rates of rural Chinese women, once among the highest in the world, have dropped considerably. But rural women remain largely powerless in Chinese society. From Eric Fish in the Atlantic:

By most measurable indicators, the lot of rural women has improved dramatically in the decade since Michael Phillips’ suicide study shocked the nation. In addition to the falling suicide rate, record numbers of women are attending college, rural healthcare has expanded greatly, and millions have been pulled from abject poverty.

But rural areas haven’t kept up with cities, and women haven’t kept pace with men. While per capita income tripled for rural residents from 2,253 RMB ($275) per year in 2000 to 6,977 RMB in 2011, incomes in cities nearly quadrupled from 6,280 to 23,979 RMB during the same period, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Rural women only earned 56 percent of what their male counterparts did in 2010, down from 79 percent in 1990. These gaps in money and power leave rural women vulnerable to exploitation.

Reliable statistics for sexual assault in China don’t exist, but Tsun-Yin Luo, a professor at the Graduate Institute for Gender Studies at Shih-Hsin University in Taipei, estimates that fewer than one out of ten sexual assaults are ever reported in China. “The patriarchal culture actually brings sexual violence to female victims,” she says. “Lots of victims of sexual assault feel ashamed of their victimization, and even if they don’t feel ashamed, their family ensures that they feel ashamed.”

Luo says that this disproportionally affects rural women, who don’t have the same access to information about their rights. “Women in the countryside tend to be left behind,” she says.