The Role of Women in Chinese Economic Activity

A most interesting discussion thread has developed on this blog relates to the role of women in economic activity in China. I am working on how we might best expose you to women in China who can better comment on this issue but am unsure at this time how this item will pan out. If you type in the following on Google (without quotes) it pulls up a number of articles about this topic that you can start to peruse: role of women in Chinese economic activity.

As as an aside, while in China and dining with several successful Chinese women who own their own business, car and home (many who had children), I was asked on several occassions (paraphrased; don’t shoot the messenger), “Why do so many American women give up their careers once they have children?” They really seemed puzzled, and one could even say perplexed by this. It would appear both sides will have much to discuss if we can set something up in this regard, but know that you may have to take it upon yourself to approach such resources on an individual, informal level to discuss when the opening arises, as a public workplace discussion of such an issue while we visit a firm may not be the ideal time or place. As always, use your good judgment to gather the information you would like to know in this regard. I think they are as curious about you as you are about them!

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17 Responses to The Role of Women in Chinese Economic Activity

  1. Cassie Rowland says:

    This subject is one of great interest to me. As a woman who will be embarking on my career path within the next year I have paid close attention to women’s role in the economy in the U.S., but I am very curious and know little about the role Chinese women play in their booming economy. The comment about American women giving up their careers once they have children perplexes me. I do not see this as the case. On the contrary I have read several articles and heard several comments from people that have done business in China that the majority of women over there make 3 times less then the men. Specifically women that work over there ususally make less than $20,000 a year. As a woman entering the newly emerging Chinese dominated business world this is alarming. If i were to choose to work over there how could I compete? $20,000 a year doesn’t sound like a really good deal to me. As far as women over here giving up their careers when they have children…three words- cost of childcare. It is now so expense to put a kid in full-time childcare families can’t afford it and it is more practical for one parent ot stay home and raise the child. I wonder what childcare is like in China. How much does it cost? How good is it?

  2. Peter Begley says:

    “Why do so many American women give up their careers once they have children?”

    I may have a minority perspective regarding the above statement, but in response, I would ask, “Why do so many American men and women prioritize their careers over raising their children?” (Please note that I include “men” in there as well.) I think a general reply would cite cost of living as a major issue. To this I would agree – trying to raise one or more children, especially in California, is extremely expensive.

    Yet, what strikes me as odd is that instead of attempting to figure out how to live a less expensive lifestyle, or choosing to relocate to a location that has a lower cost of living, most American’s (this is definitely a broad generalization) spend their time trying to figure out how to make more money and move up in the world. It makes sense, but still baffles me a bit.

    As a father who has dedicated a lot of time trying to figure out how to spend as much time as possible with my son and my wife, I have a hard time comprehending how a career (or anything, for that matter) can supersede wanting to be with your family and raise your children. I would gladly ditch the development of my career, and I would go to pretty significant lengths to reduce my family’s cost of living, in order to make such a reality possible. Is working really as fulfilling as watching your son fling applesauce across the kitchen with a smile?

    I’m sure many would argue that sometimes there aren’t many options – buying a house in San Luis Obispo is expensive; buying a house in most California communities is expensive; the relationship of cost of living to available wages in most California communities is way off balance (for a laugh, check out Santa Barbara sometime); the cost of higher education in 18+ years is going to be obscene; and, most American individuals, especially if they are married when they retire and want to live a reasonably normal lifestyle, will need to sock away in excess of $1 million.

    However, for the most part, such reasons are merely hollow excuses. We have hundreds of other options, the least of which is choosing to consume a bit less.

    My intention is not to criticize and tell people to get rid of everything they own and join a commune. Rather, it is to point out that we (as Americans, as graduate students, as individuals living in coastal California, as individuals living in a developed country, etc.) live extremely privileged lives (as a base, anyone with an opportunity to pursue a higher education is very privileged in my book, student loans or not). We have far more choices then we like to admit or consider.

  3. Austin Hsia says:

    From what I have been hearing, the role of women in China is not held highly for the most part. Sons are welcomed because they will continue their parents business or carry their last name. In a sense, they will keep their famly name living. Here is an article I found on the history of women in China. Even though this is history some of it still holds true today in China

    As for “Why do so many American women give up their careers once they have children?” I am somewhat confused. I guess I would say it would depend on the area of living. In some places in America, the woman or man could work while th other would raise the kids. In California, unless you earn a great amount of income, there is little chance for one parent to work and other stay at home. I remeber doing a brief report on childcare systems compared to the US, and I believe what the article said is that China, Japan, and Germany (There are more) have great childcare systems compared to the US, but this may conflict with sons or daugthers in China. I to would also like to know the system.

  4. Jessica Valpey says:

    After reading the above comments, one thought that continuously enters my mind is “this is one of those things that’s scary about globalization”. When I say that, or think that, what I am really referring to is the fear that countries around the world will adopt the mindset of “gaining more, achieving more, being better, making money”, etc. Honestly, I really don’t like the thought of such a domino effect.

    As a woman in America, I think it is sad when fellow Americans look down upon stay at home moms (as for how other countries view such a choice, I’ve actually never thought about it). There shouldn’t be any shame placed on women who choose this. Ironically, I feel that it is perceived as being “kind of cool” if a man manages to play the role of a stay at home dad. As others have mentioned, in today’s world, many families do not have a choice – both parents must work to support a family. In my opinion, you are one of the lucky few if you can choose to stay at home . . . how many people have such a choice these days? As Peter mentioned, we can consume less and live in less expensive areas – then we might have the choice. Sadly, I don’t think this used to be the case.

    As for the opinion in China, I have yet to read many articles on this subject, and the articles I’ve read reveal mixed opinion. Personally, I view two factors as influential in this matter . . . for one, if you are only allowed to have one child, your perspective of raising “children” is very different. I also think that people in China are at a stage where capitalism is very exciting, and for them, passing on new opportunities is out of the question. For Americans, the “excitement” of working is not necessarily there – some people want to return to the “simpler” life. As for me, I sometimes wonder what our country would be like if we weren’t so obsessed with “gaining more” — what would it be like to live in the “old days”. Often times, I think it sounds pretty nice.

    All that being said, I think that CHOICE is what people ultimately value. If you choose to work, you should be able to do so (and be treated as all others are). If you choose to stay at home, you should be able to do so. What’s frustrating is when there is no choice — for Americans, many of us feel that we “have to work” — being a stay at home parent is out of the question.

    I’m going to end this comment with one of my favorite quotes (because I think it applies to this subject matter) . . .
    “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.”
    – Joseph Campbell

  5. JingWei Xian says:

    After Dr. Carr mentioned this topic and asked me to get involved on Tuesday and reading everything, I don’t know what I should write and how I should write. Instead of going online to research (I know you guys do it much more than I do), I called my friends and parents in China to ask them the situation. What I write below are based on my experience from the first 17 years of my life I lived in China, experience from a dozen times I’ve gone back during the 8 years in US, what I’d been told from my parents and other families about the life in the past, and what I’ve been told in this few days.

    China, with 1.6 billion of population and area of 9.6 million square kilometers (including Taiwan and South Sea), is in a very complicated situation. For those of you on the trip, you are going to the three most prosperous regions in China: Beijing the capital, Changjiang River Delta represented by Shanghai, and Pearl River Delta represented by Shenzhen. (make sure you guys go out at night in Shanghai) After the trip, you will see why US government wants China to admit it’s a developed country. However, those areas consists very small part of the Mainland, and those high-income people consist a tiny part of the enormous population. If you have chance to visit those place in povert, you probably ask yourself “am I in Africa?” After averaging the rich and the poor, that’s why China well qualify for a developing country.

    Let’s get back on topic. Although history has a huge influence, let’s not mentioned history and forcus on present. For those lucky people in China, like me, who live in prosperous areas, are able to get high education and exposed to foreign cultures, they don’t care about having a daughter or a son. If you ask people on the street in the three cities you’e going for preference of son of daughter, the most answer you will hear probably “does not matter”, then “son is preferred, but daughter is also very welcome”, and you will rarely hear “must be a son”. On ther other hand, yes, percentage-wise among the enormous population, you can claim that more people look down upon females than those treat both genders equally.

    I haven’t heard about any huge difference between men and women’s salary. Everybody I called in the last few days told me that there’s no such women earning 3 times less than men. A woman and a man in a same position receive same salary. Even though it might not be exactly same amount, they are on the same page, which does not even create more than 15% difference. Medical insurance and retirement contribution do deduct slightly more from women because average women life is longer than that of men. So, again, in those develop regions, inequality in salary of the two gender is not likely happen.

    Pay attention to the units in this paragraph. $20,000 US dollar roughly equal to 160,000RMB. I don’t mind telling that, my father, as one of the top manager and engineer in the water supply company, with daily capacity of 760,000 meter cube, in my hometown city with about 1 million population, which is part of Guangzhou, the capital of Canton Provice, started to receive an annual salary that is a little more than 160,000RMB few years ago. 25 years ago when I was just born, my father’s monthly salary was 37RMB, my mom’s was 32RMB. Yes, 37RMB and 32RMB!! Now my mom is retired and able to receive about 1,000RMB monthly as retirement. An annual income of 160,000RMB is at the top of mediate income level or the lower end of high income level. With such an annual salary, you are able to buy a nice brand new apartment and a car. Those who sit in front of an assembly line in the manufacture you are going to visit in Shenzhen are likely to earn about 12,000RMB+/-20% a year, which is hundreds times better than they do farming back in rural area they are from. 160,000RMB a year in China is considerablely rich, but $20,000 US dollar a year is low income in US. It’s not fair to compare that way.

    Oh, I mention my mom. My mom just arrived in San Francisco yesterday. She’s currently splitting her time half and half to spend in US and China. This is not the first time she ditch my dad to come to help taking care the baby and a future one in June of her youngest sister, who, the mother, is working in Los Angeles while the baby is in San Francisco with her grandparents and now my mom. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to bring my mom a grandchild in the near future. So my mom has to play with my little cousin to fulfill her desire at this time. As you may seen, family culture in China is different. This may be one of the reasons that women in China does not give up their career or business after they have a child. The grandparents are more than willing to take care of their grandchildren. Parents in China don’t even need to pay for baby sitting. Even though they do hire a baby sitter, it is much cheaper. Of course, the main reason, as Jessica said, both of couple have to work to support their family and likely their own parents, because of lack of welfare system for senior citizens in China.

  6. Peter Begley says:

    JingWei:Thank you for your openness and the effort you made to provide context to this issue. I doubt we would have received this level of information any other way and I really respect the level of explanation and personal information you offered. I found the income/salary comparison you made particularly helpful. I’m looking forward to the trip as well as the possibility of meeting up with you!

  7. Elisabeth Suiter says:

    Thanks, JinWei. I can relate due to my family also coming from a developing country, that you do not need to worry so much about childcare expenses if your parents are around, but you do have to worry about financially supporting both your children and your parents, making work over home necessary. In Gary’s personal blog under “Me? Chinese? I’m Chinese-American…”, he makes the point (sorry if I am incorrect here in my interpretation) that your life goal in the U.S. is to further yourself, whereas the Chinese goal is to further your family and leave your kids better off than yourself. That is also the case with my culture. You want your kids to have a better life than you, but you also expect them to be your personal welfare system when you are old.

    I have a question for you then. You say that in these richer areas, often a son is not preferred over a daughter, but overall in the country if you include the poor areas, that is indeed the case. So can the preferrance of a son over a daughter be related to the expected productivity in manual labor, such as agriculture, which I would guess is the bread and butter of the poorer regions? Keeping an open mind, I can see that if my future depended on how many good grades my child can get, I would not care about my child’s gender. However, if I lived my life believing my future depended solely on how physically strong my child was, I probably would prefer a son. Is the preferrance for male offspring then somehow related to the nature of survival in rural areas? If so, can we then reasonably expect to not have such gender preferrances affect us in the business world? While this inequality is still concerning, it could be that this is a problem for the cultural anthropologist, not the MBA student.

  8. Chris Carr says:

    Jarod Diamond, a noted scholar at UCLA who I believe is a cultural anthropologist (not sure of that point as my memory is foggy), has written on the role that grandparents play in raising children in other cultures. See, e.g., his Pulitzer prize winning multidisciplinary focused book, “Guns, Germs and Steel.” What I appreciate about his work is that he often starts by asking what appears to be a mundane question but upon closer review it becomes anything but a simple question. His “Guns, Germs and Steel” book starts with the question he was asked on a beach in New Guinea one day by a local man named Yali: “Why do so many Western countries have more ‘cargo’ than other countries and cultures?” With “cargo”, of course, being a metaphor for wealth, insitutional development, etc. (one could even argue in the context of this discussion thread it equates to day care resources and opportunities). He admits in Chapter One of his book that he did not have a clue re: how to respond to Yali that day on the beach, and hence his journey to explore this complex question began with the writing of his Guns, Germs and Steel book. My point is that the answer to the question of “why do grandparents in one culture take care of children and not in another?” is probably far more complex than one would guess at first blush. As an aside, one chapter in Diamond’s book that I remember being a page turner was about how the explorer/conquistador Pizarro and about 100 of his men faced off against over 30,000 Incas (Aztecs? Mayans?) and won the battle in about 15 minutes.

  9. Elisabeth Suiter says:

    I believe you know I am a Latin American Studies undergrad, but I will resist the great temptation to write an essay here on the methods of conquest used by the Spaniards, especially since I am not familiar with the context in which it was used. It was in fact the Incas, and suffice to say the Conquistadores used internal conflict to their advantage, since manpower and terrain definitely was not on their side. Anyone interested in hearing me speak for an hour, ask me about this later. (I believe Adrienne has witnessed such rants before.) For now, I suppose I will have to find that book.

    The simple answer to the complex question appears to be economics. If you have a higher earning potential than your parents, it makes sense that you would be the one working. However, the social implications of the varying concepts of childhood and upbringing definitely would need to go much deeper then that. Thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds like I have quite a few reasons to read that.

  10. Chris Carr says:

    Hi Elizabeth. Good post. I was not blessing or admiring Imperialism or conquest. Diamond’s book and that chapter also does not do so. Only suggesting that Diamond, like any good scholar, has written some stuff that makes us rethink things. E.g., which drives which – does culture drive economics, or vice versa? Do they influence both (the gut reaction answer that most folks across the globe would give is “why, of course!”), but how does one measure such a question without selecting the dependent and independent variables that will lead to the result one naturally wants to find? I also saw a show on TV recently where Diamond was asked how he is able to pull together so many academic disciplines in his work. He noted how his parents were both academics and dinner conversations in his house involved professors from different disciplines and he was able to start to see at an early age connections that most don’t get exposed to until later in life. His ability to cross-pollinate academic disciplines, I believe, is the strength of his work.

  11. Emile Davis says:

    JingWei: Your post is certainly something I wouldn’t expect to find in a textbook, and I thought it was very interesting. What is sticking out at me is the 8:1 RMB to US Dollar ratio. I’m trying to keep your last sentence of that paragraph in mind while posting this comment. Suppose a US resident was able to save $20,000 over the course of one year. If this person moved to China, then (s)he would have the equivalent of 160,000RMB in China and be quite well off for the next year. Am I on the right track, or am I comparing in the exact way that you stated was not fair?

    I’m not surprised by what you said about the three wealthy cities. I think it would be very easy for people to visit the more developed cities and assume all of China is as affluent as those cities. I hope we will be able to see and appreciate the real parts of China.

  12. JingWei Xian says:

    I forgot to mention last time. I think this has a closer relationship to the role of women in business in China. I mentioned the equality on salary last time. The equality of chance must not leave out. In terms of chance, I mean the chance of women being in the top level of business versus men. Everyone has an equal opportunity now, in terms of gener. Since the invention of online blog and forum, I’ve seen increasing number of female individuals claimed that they had tough time to be dated and get marry because they have a relatively high positions and income. This issued had brought attention of media as well. The reason behind this is about the Chinese tradition and culture that are hard to explain in a few words. I personally don’t mind at all to have a wife that is smarter, have a higher position and income than me, but I definitely desire she is not a busy one with working so as to have a certain amout of time with the family. This is driven by the tradition and culture, but also being open minded against the tradition and culture.

    Since women had been surpressed by tradition for a very long time in Chinese histroy, Chinese government created laws and policies to protect women rights. These laws and policies are being perfected while new laws and being added. Politically, there must be women representative in each part of the government. For example, Ms. Wu Yi became one of the vice presidents of China before Ms. Rice took over the secretary of state. Before being a vice president, Ms. Wu served as a top officer of department of commerce of China for a long time. In addition, Chinese women have one benefit that American women don’t – a date for women, March 8. It’s not a holiday, in which ladies still have to work like normal. However, companies and business (I’m not sure if foreign companies and investments do this) specially treat all their female employee. Usually women are treated a nice gathering dinner, or a cash bonus for this special day, or a one-to-two-day trip. This is how China appreciate women’s contribution.

    I totally agree with Elisabeth’s comments. That’s the main reason why I’m here with you guys. I’m the only child. It was a very tough decision for both myself and my parents to being apart for years. In order for me to be more competitive, they decided to send me away and I decided to accept their decision. I actually rejected the first time they asked, with chance I could have come 3 years earlier. The preference of a son is partly originated from the need of working power. I thing it’s still be part of the reason now. The ability to carry on the family name is another main reason. This is rooted in our tradition. However, it’s evidently that those who are educated and exposed to the world don’t have such mind dead-set anymore. In fact, there are increasing number of people prefer a daughter now because the claim a daughter will be more closed and more likely to take care of the parents when the parents become old.

    Before going to Emile’s question, I would conclude that women are not discriminated in terms of their abilty to work in business in China, since they are able to receive salary as a man in the same position, as well as being able to have equal opportunity to climb up the stair.

    Emile, you’re on the right track. What I meant in my last message was not to match what you may earn in China with the life expense in United State. It’s very reasonable to assume that if you work in China, you’re going to live in China for that period, unless it is a short term business trip or assignment. Therefore, what you earn is going to be spent at where you earn. So, $20,000 is low income in US, while 160,000RMB is considered to be high income in China.

  13. John Wu says:

    Interesting and insightful discourse here. I plan to present a few slides on the 24 hours of a Chinese businessman and the 24 hours of a Chinese businesswoman in May when I go to SLO. I hope I can shed some light on how the new (upper) middle class in China is faring.

    Regarding JingWei’s experiences and observations of child rearing in China and Elisabeth’s similar experience (and Gary’s quote about furthuring individuals vs. family), one has to read Richard Dawkin’s ground breaking work in 1976, She Selfish Gene, to understand why that’s the case. The book also helps explain why grandparents are often involved in bringing up their offsprings. In America, we have a highly developed, specialist-oriented post-industrial society where we outsource almost everything. The role of the family needs to be reexamined here as every service and function a family provides as an economic unit can be purchased, sometimes more cheaply, from outside. We hire nannies, send kids to schools, have a teacher/coach for anything from piano and violin and soccer, tennis, and modeling, use an entourage of gardeners, plumbers, carpenters, handymen to maintain our houses, and work with a psychiatrist because we don’t now how to discipline kids (please watch the cable show “Honey we are killing the kids”). In China, generalists still rule and women perform the many and various duties in their society.

    Finally, what’s the meaning of life? Are advances in economics the same as advances in culture? Can a poor country develop highly advanced civilization? Can poor men (and women) be happy or happier than their richer counterparts? It’s NOT how much one makes; it’s how much one buys the many neccessities and indulgences every month and how much one saves in the end of the month that matters. $5000 a month here will leave you nothing in the end of the month (Americans savings rates are around -0.5% in 2005) while 5000RMB a month in China (RMB is a mere 1/8 of USD) will likely buy all the luxuries of a middle class living, a moderate house, a small car maybe, and a whopping 40% savings rate! So, who is richer?

    While we are not likely to see the real China in this trip, we will experience what many Chinese experience, even though they live in the three most advanced cities, in their everyday life. We will discover how affordable life can be outside of our 4-star hotels.

  14. Peter Begley says:

    Here’s a recent interesting article from the Economist that touches on this subject: Women in the Workforce: The Importance of Sex

    (As a side note, I find the title’s double entendre to be dangerously close to offensive.)

  15. Elisabeth Suiter says:

    In case anyone is still reading this thread, I thought I would add something. I talked to a girl from Beijing and asked her many questions. Luckily, she seemed excited to answer.

    From her I learned that yes, families sometimes believe that men can do more farm work than women, but she does not see families still relying on that too much. A child of either sex is successful if he or she studies hard, so whether a daughter or son is born to you doesn’t truly matter much anymore. She says that as a female, the last thing you want to do is be a housewife and depend on a man, for one becuase there aren’t really enough men to go around and this life strategy can be disasterous. She said there are many women who are highly educated and never marry, something which she says is not stygmatized at all. She called them something like the “3 highs” because they have high education, high income, and high age (I am not 100% sure I know what she meant with “high age”).

    In addition, I learned that the one child policy is not as uniform as we believe it is, or at least as I believed it was. She says if both parents come from a single-child family, they can have two kids.

    I found this extremely interesting, so I thought I’d share.
    This comes from a 21-year-old girl who studies at Peking University, finishing her bachelor’s and has already been accepted to their Master’s program with full tuition waved.

    One last thing I want to mention, because she said this Chinese saying to me and I can’t get it out of my mind: “Knowledge changes fate”. I think that absolutely hits home for me, and just wanted to pass this on because I feel that is a very powerful saying and explains so much about their culture, but can also be applied to our own lives at this point in time.

  16. Chris Carr says:

    Here is a recent SSRN paper of possible interest you can download for free (“Does Culture Affect Economic Outcomes?”), which relates to part of our discussion thread above.

  17. JingWei Xian says:

    Elisabeth, I heard about the “three highs”, too. The “high age” was a result of direct translation from Chinese to English. What it means is aging problem, typically past the prime time of getting marry, which is generally 25-32.

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