China has experienced rapid development and unparalleled economic growth over the past 60 years, with the country transforming from an agrarian society to a industrial power house which is now challenging the US for dominance of the global high-tech economy. This development has completely changed the lives of China’s one billion population, propelling the country’s middle class into a consumer-driven, technology-laden 21st Century lifestyles.
Despite these monumental changes, the opportunities, expectations and freedoms of women remain largely governed by the sentiments of the past, and gender inequality remains a factor which denies many women the chance to realise their ambitions and potentials.
According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) most recent equality rankings, China’s Gender Gap Index score has fallen for the fifth year running. China now ranks below Myanmar and Russia, coming in 103rd place from 149 countries. The WEF’s annual report puts China a very long way behind Namibia and Rwanda, two African nations which make the top 10 for gender equality, and is a clear indication that much more needs to be done to improve the rights, freedoms and opportunities of women in China.
The WEF’s gender index focuses on women’s opportunities in four areas: politics, education, health and the economy.
In terms of education, China has made significant progress, and girls have far greater access to education, at all levels, than they’ve had previously.
Since 2009, the number of girls enrolling in colleges and universities has been higher than the number for male students. Females now account for 51.4 percent of all students in higher education. Considering that in 1985, girls only constituted 25 percent of the students enrolled in secondary school, this is a remarkable achievement. Furthermore, women are dominating many academic fields including; science, mathematics, engineering and automation.
Higher female enrolment levels in universities should equate to great equality – but clearly this isn’t the case. So why is China ranking so poorly in gender equality?
As the education figures indicate, the problems with gender equality in China are not caused by education, rather by the economy, the workplace, the wider society and traditional expectations from the home.
Officially, women’s rights in the workplace place them on an equal footing with men, however, women earn on average 22 percent less than their male colleagues. In many Chinese organisations men are considered to be better decision makers and more natural leaders, simply because of their gender.
Furthermore, China’s rapidly ageing population is becoming a concern for the country’s leaders, who are now pressuring women to marry and have children early, in an attempt to rectify this population imbalance. Government officials have gone as far as urging young women not to be ‘too picky’ when it comes to finding a partner, settling for ‘Mr OK’ instead of waiting for ‘Mr Right’.
Many families also exert great pressure on young women to marry, settle down and put family first. A high number of Chinese parents plan arrange marriages for their daughters who remain single in their late twenties to avoid them becoming a ‘Sheng Nu’, a derogatory term with is translated as ‘leftover women’. The video below details one daughter’s experiences of such an experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, men who remain bachelors into their 30s do not suffer such negative attitudes from society.
If China’s populace are to genuinely benefit from the progress and development the country has over recent decades, gender inequality needs to be tackled. Female graduates entering the workplace deserve to be treated as equals, with equal rights and equal pay. While the wider society will need to update their attitudes towards the role of women in society.