Written by Jieyu Liu.

The Chinese Communist Party firmly believed that the way to achieve national women’s emancipation was to ensure women did full-time paid work outside of the home. Since 1949, the mobilisation of women into paid work has been among the top gender campaigns. The political actions genuinely improved women’s status and quality of life. However, China’s high participation rate of women’s employment does not necessarily guarantee an equal workplace.

Maoist era

As a result of the state’s mobilisation, paid employment became a normative feature of urban women’s lives in the Maoist era. Women born under socialism (post-1949) established a full-time working identity and that for these women it was far less acceptable to be a housewife. Moreover, by earning a wage that was central to the family budget, urban women were able to more readily achieve parity with men in the family decision-making process.

The mobilization of women into the workplace did not exempt them from their more traditional duties, such as being a good wife and mother. Although men were called upon to do a share of domestic work, the research of All China’s Women’s Federation has shown that women continued to spend far more time undertaking domestic tasks. The stronger cultural association of women and family meant that women entered social production on unequal terms to male workers, and through a vicious circle of devoting more time to domestic duties, reinforced the workplace gender hierarchy. My research shows that, unlike their male counterparts, women industrial workers suffered from time poverty, juggling between work and family duties, and this made it difficult for them to invest time in cultivating social connections (guanxi) that would benefit their career (Liu 2007).

Post-Mao era

During China’s economic reforms, gender is increasingly recognised as a key factor in the reorganization of work and employment. My research found that women’s unequal working experiences and social disadvantages in the pre-reform era shaped their greater vulnerability to redundancy during economic restructuring in the 1990s. This link is particularly evident in the experiences of ‘older, redundant women workers from the Cultural Revolution generation, or the “unlucky generation” which experienced famine in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s – 70s, the one-child policy after 1979, and redundancies from the late 1980s. One woman (born in 1949) from this generation summarized her life (Liu 2007 : 123):

The life of our generation was really tough. When we were school children, everything was messed up by the Cultural Revolution. We learnt nothing at all. Then when we were allocated a job at the danwei (work unit), how were we to know that the factory would run down in twenty years time? Our generation is so unlucky! Now we became layoffs, every month only 186 yuan as living allowances. When I found work, my daughters had children and so I had to leave to look after their babies. Well, our generation have eaten plenty of bitterness.

While older women borne the brunt of economic restructuring, young educated women benefited from opportunities which arose out of the reforms. Absolute terms better off, relative to male counterparts still disadvantaged. A biological determinist understanding of gender naturalized men’s superiority over women which often shuffled highly educated women graduates into secondary and supporting roles in their organizations (Liu 2013). One male sales manager from a very profitable state-owned foreign trade company explained to me what he thought about the relationship between women and work: ‘work is important to women but it doesn’t need to be challenging, it just needs to be easy and stable work so that women have something to do with their time’. The deputy general manager in the company still believed that ‘the biggest fear for a man is to enter the wrong occupation while the biggest fear for a woman is to marry the wrong man’ (Liu 2013: 80).

Faced with such gendered expectation at work, a 24-year-old sales assistant with a university degree commented with frustration: ‘I was always expected to excel academically. But now the company thinks of us so differently. My heart sank when my line manager said to me in the annual review meeting, “don’t work so hard; you also need to have time to find a good husband”’ (Liu 2013:82).

For those women who reached manager positions, my research (Liu 2008) found that the sexualized business culture including frequent visits to leisure venues with the clients made women professionals vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation. Despite the commodification and sexualisation of women’s bodies in the market economy, past restrictions on sexual expression and discussion have given ‘reputable’ women little or no opportunity for sexual autonomy.

While men happily consume women’s sexuality, women who are actively engaged in sexual activities are considered decadent; women’s sexuality is still strictly moralized. This has challenged white-collar professional women as they attempt to negotiate the sexualized work culture whilst maintaining their sexual reputation. These white-collar professional women seemed to walk a fine line between respectability and disreputability (Liu 2008). The following woman manager in real estate explained to me her dilemma (Liu 2008: 97).

I am aware of the importance of business networks but I know what I am supposed to do as a woman, how to be sensible. For example, I often attend those conferences where there are many big developers. But as a woman, it’s not convenient for me to approach these men. If other men don’t talk to me first, I can’t take the initiative to approach them. Because I am a woman, I need to behave myself. Be careful; I don’t want any unnecessary things. At the conferences, women are a minority so a lot of attention is already on you. If I were a man, I’d definitely go to talk to these big developers because they are important business resources.


China’s national projects of the last century have challenged traditional gender ideologies and re-arranged the relations between men and women. However, due to a biological determinist understanding of gender in the modernisation project, inequalities between men and women persist in the workplace. For ordinary women who want to pursue a career instead of simply taking on a job, considerable barriers remain.

Jieyu Liu is Deputy Director of the SOAS China Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  Image credit: CC by Peijin Chen/Flickr.

Liu, J. (2007) Gender and Work in Urban China: Women Workers of the Unlucky Generation, London and New York: Routledge.
Liu, J. (2008) ‘Sexualized Labour? “White-collar Beauties” in Provincial China’, pp.85-103, in Jackson, S., Liu, J. and Woo, J. (eds) East Asian Sexualities: Modernity, Gender and New Sexual Cultures, New York and London: Zed Books.
Liu, J. (2013) ‘White-collar Workers: Gender and Class Politics in an Urban Organization’, pp.75-90, in Chen, M. and Goodman, D (eds) Middle Class in China: Identity and Behaviour, Edward Elgar.

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