10 Jun

Women’s Status Globally: The Case of Professional Women in China

Posted By Politybooks

As we come to the end of another academic year, we thought it would be a good time to assess the status of women globally and how their status has changed vis-à-vis men. This is no small task, as any global measures are destined to mask complexities in how gender and other systems of inequality play out within a given nation. Nevertheless, aggregate global measures provide a general sense of how things are going. A good place to begin an assessment of global gender inequality is the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report (http://www.weforum.org/issues/global-gender-gap), which has been published annually since 2006. The report provides indices for women—relative to men—in four dimensions: Economic Participation & Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health & Survival,and Political Empowerment. By combining the scores in each dimension, the report creates an index for the overall score. All scores measure women’s status relative to men in a given country with a score of 1 representing perfect equality and a score of 0 representing perfect inequality. The most recent report documents some important signs of positive social change that have occurred over recent decades. For example, in the aggregate, countries around the globe produce measures of .96 and .93 for health and education,respectively (pp. 7-8). The news with regard to women’s economic and political representation, relative to men, remains far less positive: the global measure for the economic measure stands at about 0.6 and the global political measure is at an abysmal 0.2 (p. 17). 

Although global measures of and trends in gender inequality are valuable, it is important to remember that there are many issues within a given country that make the picture of inequality far more complex. Take, for example, China, one of the four sample countries in Investigating Gender. In 2006, China was ranked 63rd in the Gender Gap Report with its score of 0.6561. In 2012, it had dropped to 69th place with its overall score of 0.685. So although China improved its overall score over that time, it didn’t improve as fast as other countries and thus fell lower in its ranking. China’s overall score also masks variation across the four dimensions that compose it. China’s scores are as follows: Economic Participation & Opportunity—0.675; Educational Attainment—0.982; Health & Survival—0.934; and Political Empowerment—0.150. 

China has received attention lately because women have seemed to fare quite well in the business world. For example, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, China ranks first in the world in terms of women occupying senior management positions; women are 51 percent of senior managers. These data are reflected in one of the specific measures in the Gender Gap Report, where China ranks first in the world in terms of women’s representation as professional and technical workers. This positive development in Chinese society stands in tension with other dimensions of Chinese economic, political and social life. As more and more women enter professional life, there has emerged a notion of “leftover women,” (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21320560) professional-level women who are aging into their late twenties and who remain unmarried. These women, who are increasing referred to as “old unmarried women,” experience tremendous pressures to marry from both their families and the state. This pressure on women to marry and return to domestic life has occurred in a context of rising unemployment (Fincher 2013). 

The contradiction between women’s professional standing and the persistence of traditional commitments to heterosexual marriage are directly related to an array of topics addressed in Investigating Gender. Some Chinese women appear to have broken through the glass ceiling, fundamentally altering the gender segregation of that segment of the labor market, yet most women aren’t professionals, and women are still paid less than men across the labor market—all topics addressed in Chapter 5: Work. The tensions between women’s professional and domestic life echo the discussion in Chapter 3: Families. The Chinese government’s contradictory role in promoting education for and employment of women in professional sectors of the labor market on one hand and their domesticity on the other, relates to the discussions in Chapter 4:Education, and Chapter 8: Politics. Most importantly, the opportunities,dilemmas, and contradictions faced by Chinese women make visible how a comprehensive understanding of gender in China requires attention to the complex relations among different institutions. At the same time, improvements are the outgrowth of social change in Chinese society and the nation’s position in the global capitalist system. 

Fincher, Leta Hong. 2013. “China’s Entrenched Gender Gap.” New York Times, The Opinion Pages, May 20. Retrieved May 25, 2013.