Gender equality in China would bring huge economic benefits
One estimate suggests the nation could see a US$2.5 trillion increase in gross domestic product by 2020 if it closed the gender gap in education and opportunity
China’s relaxation of the one-child policy and adoption of a two-child rule promises eventually to counter the ageing of the population and shrinking of the workforce. There were also hopes that it would lead to the birth of more girls, despite the cultural preference for boys, and reduce a very serious gender imbalance. It is early days yet to expect to see any evidence of this. But it would be more welcome than ever, going by the latest report from the World Economic Forum.
The global gender gap report says China continues to record the world’s most imbalanced sex ratio at birth for the second consecutive year, a worry compounded by an ageing population. It has also slipped from 91 last year to 99 out of 144 countries in rankings for overall gender equality, based on relative gaps between men and women in health, education, economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment.
The boy-girl birth ratio rose from 108.5 to 100 in 1982 – not too far above the international norm – to 115 in 1994 and a peak of 121.2 in 2004, before levelling off and declining. A sample survey by the National Bureau of Statistics found the ratio stood at 113.5 last year, which may reflect urbanisation and greater prosperity. That is not only still far too high but the cultural preference remains. The two-child policy may be seen as positive for better gender balance. Perversely, however, some fear the opposite may be true if parents elect not to have a second child after having a boy, or if they elect not to go ahead with a second female pregnancy after having a girl. After all, sex-selective abortion at least partly accounts for the current gender imbalance at birth.
This may be only speculation at this stage but continued prejudice against girls would exacerbate a population issue which, within a decade, could result in a surplus of single men that impacts seriously on social stability and cohesion. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to a positive perception of women as economic pillars of a family is to be found in educational opportunity. According to the global gender gap report, Chinese females rank 119th in secondary school attainment, and 74th in political empowerment, but are more prominently represented in the workplace and in company ownership.
At a time when China is looking for new domestic drivers of growth, advancing gender equality could pay off handsomely. According to the report, one estimate suggests the nation could see a US$2.5 trillion increase in gross domestic product by 2020 if it closed the gender gap in education and opportunity.