Rapid modernization has enabled China to provide its citizens with improved living standards and increased economic opportunities. Yet this process has yielded uneven gains between men and women. Pronounced wage gaps and imbalanced political representation are just two of the many issues hindering gender equality in China. Working to address these inadequacies is essential for China as it continues its socio-economic development.
Global Gender Index
China’s constitution guarantees women “equal rights with men in all spheres of life,” and over the last several decades, women in China have enjoyed some notable gains. Life expectancy and literacy rates, for instance, have risen as China’s economy has developed. This progress, however, has been outpaced by the rest of the world. China’s ranking in the index fell sharply from 63rd out of 115 countries in 2006 to 103rd out of 149 countries in 2018.
Chinese Women’s Health Prospects
Access to healthcare and positive health outcomes are key measures of gender equality. Similar to other developing countries, as China has grown richer its citizens have enjoyed a higher life expectancy. Chinese women born in 2016 can expect to live 77.8 years, an increase of 4.2 years from 2000 and 9.5 years from 1980. While female life expectancy in China has surpassed the global average since 1970, it still falls short of high-income neighbors like Japan (87.1 years) and South Korea (85.2 years).
Improvements in health outcomes have primarily been driven by government initiatives. Soon after taking power in 1949, the Communist Party created a state-driven health service that was offered at little to no cost for its citizens. These services were transformed into a market-based healthcare system in the 1980s. In 2009, President Hu Jintao initiated comprehensive healthcare reforms to enable “everyone to enjoy basic healthcare services.” This effort has largely succeeded, which is all the more impressive given China’s massive population. As of 2012, 95 percent of Chinese citizens receive a modest level of healthcare coverage.
Beijing has also instituted programs specifically designed for women. These include the National Program for Women’s Development 2001-2010 and the subsequent National Program for Women’s Development 2011-2020 – both of which increased access to preventive screenings, standard reproductive healthcare services, and health and nutritional education. Such measures have delivered tangible gains. A survey issued by the National Bureau of Statistics revealed that in 2013 the number of women undergoing screenings for general diseases rose to 68.7 percent, a 7.5 percentage increase from 2010.
Other health indicators, such as the maternal mortality rate, also reflect positive change. According to the World Bank, China has dramatically lowered its maternal mortality ratio from 97 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to only 27 deaths in 2015. This ratio surpasses those found in other large developing economies like Brazil (44:100,000) and India (174:100,000). OECD countries average 14 deaths per 100,000 live births, with Finland’s ratio of 3:100,000 leading the way.
China’s sex ratio at birth is the most imbalanced in the world, with only 87 girls born per 100 boys.
China has also taken strides to improve postnatal care. A law introduced by the State Council in 2012 increased paid maternity leave to 14 weeks, and in some provinces, an entire year. In 2016, China further extended maternity leave by an additional one to three months (depending on province). The length of maternity leave in China is now comparable to the paid leave offered by many wealthy European countries, and it is a significant improvement over the US, which has no federally mandated leave.
While China has achieved a higher life expectancy and better health outcomes for women, it still suffers from an imbalanced sex ratio at birth. The lingering effects of the One-Child Policy and the longstanding cultural “son bias” have contributed to a female-to-male ratio of 87:100 at birth, ranking China last out of 149 countries surveyed by the WEF.
The sex ratio at birth is even more pronounced in rural areas. China’s 2010 census revealed that in Anhui, for instance, the ratio was less than 80 females to 100 males. However, this ratio may not fully capture China’s sex ratio, as some women who were hidden from authorities at birth have been added to official records as they age and require social services, healthcare, and education.
China now faces the challenge of a rising population of young unmarried men. The number of single men is expected to grow to 30 million in 2020. This imbalance has been associated with negative socio-economic consequences, including a declining labor force and an increase in human trafficking. Over time, however, China’s sex ratio is expected to level out. According to the United Nations, China’s sex ratio is projected to reach 106 males per 100 females by 2050.
Chinese Women’s Access to Education
Across the globe, women face significant educational disadvantages. Women often receive less schooling than men, which limits their economic prospects and has been linked with higher rates of early pregnancy.
China has made a concerted effort to boost access to education for its entire population. The 1986 Nine-Year Compulsory Education Law and the 1995 Education Law of the People’s Republic of China established equal access to enrollment, degrees, and study abroad programs. These measures have contributed to a rise in the literacy rate of women from 86.5 percent in 2000 to 92.7 percent in 2017. While noteworthy, this still places China in the lower half of global rankings, well behind highly developed economies where literacy is over 99 percent.
Over time, China’s compulsory education laws are likely to further improve literacy rates. The mean years of schooling for women in China grew from 4.8 years in 1990 to 7.6 in 2017, and primary school enrollment is nearly universal. The vast majority of young Chinese women (95.9 percent) move on to secondary schools. These levels of enrollment are much higher than their respective global averages – 88.3 percent for primary education and 75.9 percent for secondary education.
Since 2008, Chinese women have been more likely than men to continue onto tertiary and postgraduate education. According to the Ministry of Education, women constituted 52.5 percent of undergraduate students in China’s colleges and universities in 2017. The WEF ranks China as number 1 in gender balance for tertiary education.
At China’s top universities, gender ratios still skew toward men. In 2018, the female-to-male ratio at Peking University was 48 to 52, while the ratio at Tsinghua University was lower at 34 to 66. In contrast, female students are more likely to study abroad than their male peers. In 2014, women accounted for 51 percent of Chinese students studying in the US and 63 percent of those in the UK.
|Female to Male Ratio at Top Chinese Universities in 2019|
|World University Ranking||School||Female (%)||Male (%)|
|189||Shanghai Jiao Tong University||41||59|
|Source:Times Higher Education World University Rankings|
China’s urban-rural disparities further affect equal access to education. A 2016 report by the China Social Welfare Foundation found that while 96.1 percent of rural girls had enrolled in primary education, only 79.3 percent moved on to secondary levels. Some note that this drop is due to lower parental expectations and fewer employment opportunities for rural women.
Beijing is working to reduce the gap between rural and urban girls. In Sichuan province, for instance, efforts to elevate the quality of education include providing libraries, multimedia classrooms, and improved school infrastructure to rural elementary schools. Multimedia classrooms have also been utilized in the Ningxia and Gansu provinces, where schools have introduced livestreamed lessons to allow resource-sharing between urban and rural students.
Economic Opportunities for Women in China
China’s economic growth has improved overall prosperity, but Chinese women have benefited less from these gains. Throughout the 1980s, female participation in the labor force was high, averaging around 80 percent. By 2018, however, female workforce participation had dropped to 68.6 percent, only slightly higher than the US (66.1 percent) and roughly equal to Japan (68.7 percent). This decreasing trend runs contrary to other major developing countries, like Brazil and South Africa, which witnessed increased female participation over the same period.
According to Human Rights Watch, 19 percent of the Chinese national civic service jobs posted in 2018 included requirements such as “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.”
The reasons for this sharp decline are multifaceted, but China’s changing social structure and economic modernization are commonly cited as primary factors. For instance, the restructuring of China’s state-owned enterprises in the 1990s had particularly negative consequences for women. Although aimed at boosting productivity and efficiency, the privatization process precipitated layoffs of low-skilled, and often female, workers.
China’s development has also disproportionately benefited men. The income gap between urban male and female workers increased from 15 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2000. This disparity has persisted over the last two decades. A 2018 poll reported that Chinese women on average earn 22 percent less than their male coworkers.
Given these factors, the WEF unsurprisingly ranks China 74th globally in wage equality, behind the US at 8th and the UK at 64th. South Korea, which has a GNI per capita more than twice that of China, is riddled with even greater wage inequality than China. Ranked in the bottom fifth globally in terms of wage equality, South Korean women earned a shocking $26,725 per capita1 less than men in 2017. In the same year, Chinese women suffered a wage discrepancy of roughly $6,000.
Other factors are also at work. Around 50 percent of Chinese women work in secretarial, sales, and accounting positions, which typically pay less than the sales, technology, and manufacturing positions that employ 58 percent of Chinese men. The coming wave of intelligent automation may further divide the labor force. The WEF reported in late 2018 that there is a considerable risk that growing demand for AI skills could “perpetuate — and even widen — the sort of gender and equity gaps that often impact the technology sector.”
The noticeable lack of women in managerial positions further exacerbates this issue. According to the WEF, only 17 percent of senior managers, officials, and legislators in China are women. These factors are not unique to China, as only 29 percent of managerial positions in Germany are held by women. In Japan, it is a meager 13 percent.
Gender Inequality in China: A Conversation with Leta Hong Fincher
Additional roadblocks perpetuate these inequalities. For instance, the official retirement age for Chinese women is at least five years earlier than men, which reduces their potential earnings. Discrimination extends to the hiring process as well. According to Human Rights Watch, 19 percent of the Chinese national civic service jobs posted in 2018 included requirements such as “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.”
Entrepreneurship stands as one area where Chinese women take a leading role. A 2017 WEF report noted that women set up 55 percent of new internet companies in China, and more than a quarter of all the entrepreneurs in the country were women. The 2018 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs also ranks China 29th out of more than 60 countries surveyed, just behind countries like Germany (23rd) and France (24th).
Women’s Political Participation in China
Women continue to face barriers in terms of political empowerment around the world. According to the World Bank, only 23.9 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women globally. Women in China face comparably low levels of representation. The WEF ranks China 78th in terms of the political involvement of women, below similarly populous India (19th), but ahead of the US (98th). Iceland, with 38.1 percent of seats in its parliament occupied by women, ranks first globally.
Since 1949, China has had only six female members on the 25-member Politburo.
While the government officially supports gender equality, large disparities in political representation remain. In 2017, female membership in the CCP was roughly one quarter of total party membership. Similarly, only 24.9 percent of representatives in the 13th session of the National People’s Congress hosted in 2018 were women. No woman has ever sat on China’s Politburo Standing Committee, nor has any woman ever held the presidency. Since 1949, China has had only six female members on the 25-member Politburo.2
Beijing has introduced some measures to encourage greater political participation among women. With assistance from the United Nations, the All-China Women’s Federation supported training programs on leadership and political participation for rural women from 2011 to 2015.
Such efforts may fall short in facilitating women’s political participation. China’s 2018 ranking in the WEF’s Global Gender Gap report has fallen 26 places since 2006, placing it at 78th out of 149 countries. Three of the G-7 countries — the US, Japan, and Germany — witnessed a similar decline. In contrast, some countries rose in the rankings, such as Chile, which jumped from 56th place in 2006 to 31st in 2018.
Chinese women have become more active in asserting their rights through protest, but outlets for activism are increasingly difficult to find. China’s recent participation in the ‘Me Too’ movement, in which Chinese women campaigned against sexual abuses and exploitation in universities and workplaces, was met with swift censorship. The movement’s hashtag on China’s popular microblogging website, Weibo, was removed by censors shortly after it gained traction online.
Previous instances of activism also faced pushback from the government. The Feminist Five, a group of five Chinese women famous for their social activism, were arrested in 2015 over plans to protest sexual harassment in subways. They are still labeled “criminal suspects” despite their release from prison.