CLAIRE Zhang’s parents want her to have a second child now that China’s one-child policy has been lifted. Zhang, already the mother of a seven-year-old son, isn’t sure about that.
She worries taking another maternity leave may jeopardize her career advancement at the state-owned chemical company where she works in Shanghai.
“Competition in the workplace is quite tough,” Zhang explained. “Most of the women who have management positions in the company won’t want a second child. They think it would be an obstacle in their career development.”
Women have fought hard to break glass ceilings and reach management ranks in institutions and companies. The new policy allowing couples to have two children is aimed at trying to rebalance the demographics of too few young people to support too many old people. But how will the new equation affect women?
Local governments are enacting policies aimed at encouraging women to have a second child. In Shanghai, for example, the newly revised Population and Family Planning Law extends paid paternity leave from three to 10 days. Women continue to receive 128-day maternity leave, and many employers believe that even after they return to work, they can’t fully devote their attention to the job until they have finished the period of infant nursing.
“The reality is that a company believes you can’t work as effectively as a single person would, especially if you have two children at home to think about,” said Zhang.
Even before the two-child policy was issued, the proportion of women in the workforce was decreasing. In 2012, according to a survey by the All-China Women’s Federation, women held about 35.8 percent of jobs on the Chinese mainland. That compared with 38.5 percent in 1995.
The more government policies favor women as mothers, the less they may encourage women to develop careers. Some fear a growing perception of women as homemakers and child carers may hurt all women, whether they have children or not.
A woman working for a bank in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, told Shanghai Daily that she has suffered gender discrimination in her workplace for a long time.
The woman, who asked to be identified only as Rosalind, said her boss persuaded two women to quit work after they returned from maternity leave and coaxed another woman out the door when she fell pregnant with her first child.
“The bosses just prefer men to women,” she said. “When I did job interviews for the bank, I was told to concentrate on male recruits. But I did manage to hire two outstanding women who were better than any of the males I interviewed. The bosses were furious with me.”
Xiao Min, 37, who works as an engineer in a state-owned tobacco machinery company, has been married for 10 years and said she doesn’t want children. That doesn’t stop her bosses from disparaging her prospects, she said.
“The bosses often say to me, ‘You women spend too much time on housework and don’t put enough energy into the job,’” she said. “I was offended because I am not like that at all.”
Gender stereotyping isn’t confined to companies. It’s prevalent across society.
“Where have all the female scientists gone?” lamented Wang Liming, a professor with the Life Sciences Institute of Zhejiang University.
His question was the springboard for a survey of 1,600 professors and students. It showed a marked decline in the proportion of women researchers. About 30 percent of the professors interviewed said most of their female students chose to leave the research field after graduation.
Is there a gender bias behind that trend?
About 40 percent of professors in the survey said they believe male students are more “capable and energetic” than female students and said “women should focus more on family and children.” In their opinion, “highly educated women make the greatest contribution to society by raising children.”
Chairman Mao once famously said that “women hold up half the sky.” But the sky still has plenty of clouds where equal opportunity in the workplace is concerned.
Feng Yuan, co-founder of Equality, a gender equality study organization in Beijing, said China should encourage men to shoulder more family responsibilities and should also provide longer paternity leave to share the care for newborn. Women need to be freed from their stereotyped roles as homemakers.
“In some Western countries — France, for example — the government provides public day-care to ensure that career women can work,” Feng said. “Without policy support, removing gender discrimination is very difficult.”