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China Needs to Stop the Growing Gender Gap

Ineffective Anti-Discrimination Mechanisms Hinder Women’s Progress

A woman reads a company flyer at an open air job fair for college graduates and the general public in the centre of Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, China, February 6, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

“History has proved that women don’t belong in academia,” wrote Feng Gang, a prominent sociologist and professor at Zhejiang University, on his  Weibo social media account in October.“If a woman in her life time has fewer than two children, no matter how hard she works, she is destined to be unhappy,” wrote Xu Youzhen, founder and CEO of one of China’s top online game companies, also on Weibo in July. In that same post, Xu claimed, “feminism is what ugly women and stupid women use to repress beautiful women and traditional women.” Facing criticism for these remarks, Professor Feng refused to apologize--“not even in ten lives,” he said--and millionaire Xu doubled down, calling feminists “dogs.”

Given that members of China’s intellectual and business elites feel comfortable expressing views like this in public, it is no surprise to hear that the country is lagging behind in gender equality. According to a report by World Economic Forum, China now ranks 100th out of 144 countries for gender parity, falling for nine consecutive years since 2008, when it ranked 57th. The country also ranked 105th in terms of female representation among legislators, senior officials and managers. The Party Congress, just concluded, was marked by a striking absence of females in top political posts.

Biased views such as those expressed by Feng and Xu--that women are less intellectually capable than men or that women’s place is in the home--contribute to the lack of women in top jobs. These views hinder women’s professional advancement even before they enter the workforce. A 2014 survey of 66 top universities in China by the Beijing-based NGO Media Monitor Network for Women showed that 59 percent of the schools’ admission processes were discriminatory on a gender basis. Some had set gender ratio restrictions favoring male students. A 2015 survey of 1600 employees at academic institutions showed that the views that women are “weak in research ability, thinking and vision” and “lack ambition and passion” are widely shared in academia. Discrimination continued after graduation: Another 2014 study by the All-China Women’s Federation showed that 87 percent of female college graduates reported that they had suffered discrimination on the basis of gender while looking for work, including through job advertisements excluding women or stating a preference for male applicants.

China’s constitution guarantees equal rights between men and women, and Chinese law prohibits gender discrimination--but these laws are rarely enforced. It is time that the Chinese government takes gender equality seriously. Unless the government is prepared to put teeth into anti-discrimination laws, it is likely to be bad news again when next year’s ranking come out.

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