In 1995, Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women in which the international community joined together to promote women’s inclusion in all aspects of government and society.1 The Conference marked a turning point for the global agenda in gender equality. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Conference has become the blueprint for advancing women’s equality and empowerment around the world.
Since the Beijing Conference, the world has experienced both progress and setbacks in gender equality. The Global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum (WEF) measures gender equality across four key dimensions—economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. According to the 2021 report, it will take another 14.2 years to close the global gender gap in educational attainment, whereas it will take, respectively, 267.6 and 145.5 years to completely close the gender gap in economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment.
Currently, China ranks 107 out of 156 surveyed countries on the WEF’s index for 2021.2 Gender disparities and discrimination persist and remain a cause for concern for many Chinese women, especially the ones in the workforce. According to a research published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, while the gender gap in labor force participation rates in China was 9.4 percentage points in 1990, it became 14.1 percentage points in 2020.3 At the same time, the gender wage gap has also widened despite the narrowing gender gap in educational attainment.4 As the premier forum for proposing, discussing, and formulating future national policies, this year’s Two Sessions provided an opportunity to address wide-ranging policy issues, one of which being the gender gap in the workplace. With references to relevant proposals brought by delegates to the Two Sessions, this article introduces a three-pronged approach that can be further applied to address gender inequality in the workplace in the Chinese society.
Equal Paternity Leave. Under China’s Regulation on Labor Protection of Women Workers, women are entitled to 98 days of maternity leave. Depending on the province, maternity leave lasts for up to 128 or 158 days.5 Albeit well-intentioned, such designs have inevitably led to growing discrimination against women by employers, which is especially evident in hiring practices and considerations for potential promotions.6
Without a nationally mandated equal paternity leave, which currently goes up to a month at most depending on provincial legislations, the drastic difference between maternity and paternity leave reinforces employers’ negative perceptions about women, with respect to both productivity and efficiency.7 As a result, employers increasingly favor men over women in recruitment and promotion, convinced that because men carry fewer childcare responsibilities, they can spend more time working and therefore generate greater returns.
The existing leave policy reflects a dangerous acquiescence in the stereotype that portrays women as the primary caregivers of their children, while both men and women should share the burden of childcare equally. Instead of extending the maternity leave that results in a weakened candidacy from the perspective of the recruiter, mandating an equal paternity leave for new fathers should take priority.
Recognizing this, delegates made several policy recommendations to the Two Sessions in the lead-up to the agenda-setting meetings. For instance, NPC (National People’s Congress) representative Jiang Shengnan believes that new fathers should get at least a month of paid paternity leave as opposed to the current norm of 15 days in major cities. “Both husband and wife share the responsibility of parenting,” Jiang said in an interview with the state-run China Women’s News.8
During these meetings, in order to complement the maternity and paternity leave policies, the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) also discussed childcare-related incentives including making childcare-tax deductible, subsidizing education for larger families, providing subsidies and tax breaks for employers who retain jobs for pregnant mothers, offering increased support for preschool care and the training of teachers, as well as providing financial support for growing families that are in need of larger homes.
Gender Equity and Inclusion Committee. Although Article 46 of China’s Labor Law states that “the distribution of wages shall follow the principle of distribution according to work and equal pay for equal work,” the reality suggests otherwise. Examining gender inequality in the context of structural transformation and rebalancing in China, research indicates that in spite of rapid growth and expansion of the service sector, women’s relative wages in China have declined during the last two decades.9 In particular, the gender wage gap is more severe in the private sector than in the public sector.10 Although delegates to this year’s Two Sessions did not specifically address the issue of a widening gender wage gap, it is imperative that the government strives to mandate the set-up of a Gender Equity and Inclusion Committee (GEIC) within all workplaces.
The purpose of this committee is two-fold. First, in collaboration with the human resource department, it would ensure the enforcement of Article 46 by highlighting cases that violate the principle of equal pay for equal work. Second, it would also address gender-based concerns, not only providing a channel of communication for employees to file complaints anonymously without concerns over employer retaliation, but also putting in place a set of punitive measures against violations. By the end of each year, the GEIC would submit a progress report to the management to reflect on the implementation of Article 46 within the organization.
Well-Defined Legal Definitions. Sexual harassment remains a prevalent problem worldwide and China is no exception.11 While China’s Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests explicitly prohibits sexual harassment against women, it neither defines sexual harassment nor specifies what it constitutes, creating a legal gray zone that perpetrators can easily take advantage of.
In 2020, China took a step forward by enacting the Civil Code, which includes Article 1010 that has broadly defined the concept of “sexual harassment” for the first time.12 However, while establishing that perpetrators of sexual harassment may bear civil liability, it does not include a provision that delineates the legal liability involved.
During the 2022 Two Sessions, NPC representative Li Yalan, Director of the Heilongjiang Longdian Law Firm, opined that it was vital for the law to clarify the legal liability associated with sexual harassment, including sexual harassment in the workplace.13 According to Li, ending sexual harassment is vital to China’s socioeconomic development. Well-defined legal provisions enable women to defend themselves against injustices, especially in the judicial process.
A More Equal Future. Research has testified to the benefits of gender equality and inclusivity in the workplace.14 For instance, firms with more female directors on their boards deliver higher average returns on equity and better average growth.15 In fact, on a global scale, advancing gender equality could add up to $12 trillion to economic growth.16 Thus, ensuring gender equality in the workplace, a primary site of group-based inequalities, creates a win-win situation for both working women and their employers, which ultimately benefits society at large. Nevertheless, the achievement of gender equality is no simple task and requires consistent effort across all levels of society. The 2022 Two Sessions have brought gender equality a step forward and in so doing also strengthened China’s advance toward social inclusion, regardless of gender and other categories of identity.
Disclaimer: While this essay discusses gender in a binary context, it acknowledges the importance of creating an equal work environment for those who identify as nonbinary or genderqueer. They play an equally critical role in our society and how to ensure their well-being should inspire further research.
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3. Yiwen Zhang and Tianlei Huang, “Gender Discrimination at Work Is Dragging China’s Growth,” PIIE,January 6, 2021, https://www.piie.com/blogs/china-economic-watch/gender-discrimination-work-dragging-chinas-growth.
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6. Shuzheng Zhou and Ruohao Chen, “Using Education to Enhance Gender Equality in the Workplaces in China,” Open Journal of Social Sciences 07, no. 09 (2019): pp. 259-272, https://doi.org/10.4236/jss.2019.79020.
7. Fan Wu, “China1 - Leavenetwork.org.”
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10. Ichiro Iwasaki and Xinxin Ma, “Gender Wage Gap in China: A Large Meta-Analysis,” Journal for Labour Market Research 54, no. 1 (December 12, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1186/s12651-020-00279-5.
11. Quanbao Jiang, “Sexual Harassment in China,” Asia Dialogue, June 11, 2018, https://theasiadialogue.com/2018/01/29/sexual-harassment-in-china/.
12. Aaron Halegua, “Workplace Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in China,” U.S.-Asia Law Institute, 2021, https://usali.org/workplace-gender-based-violence-and-harassment-in-china.
13. “《两会1+1+1》：遏制职场性骚扰,” People.cn. Mar. 9, 2022, accessed March 24, 2022. http://opinion.people.com.cn/n1/2022/0309/c1036-32370968.html.
14. Edward H. Chang and Katherine L. Milkman, “Improving Decisions That Affect Gender Equality in the Workplace,” Organizational Dynamics 49, no. 1 (2020): p. 100709, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2019.03.002.