Blowing Water

Single, childless and maligned: when will discrimination against unmarried women end?

Luisa Tam says society needs to stop treating single women like pariahs, especially since the future of the world economy increasingly lies in their hands

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 11:17pm

What is it about single, childless women in Hong Kong and China at large that hands them the misfortune of being the butt of jokes? Bridget Jones may have been the fictional darling of unwed women in her heyday, but the phenomenon she embodied is still taboo in many circles.

Swedish furniture giant Ikea recently ran a television commercial depicting a fierce woman telling her daughter over dinner: “Don’t call me mum any more if you cannot bring a boyfriend home.”

Soon after it was aired, Ikea had to apologise and retract the ad after the firm was inundated by a flood of criticism from angry internet users who said it was prejudiced against single women.

The scene played out in the ad is a common scenario in Hong Kong. Single women face enormous pressure to get married and have children in their late 20s. As families get smaller, many 20-something singletons are often the only child, so parents rely on them not only financially but also to carry on the family line (sometimes regardless of sexual orientation).

According to government statistics from 2014, the number of single women in Hong Kong had reached 1.01 million, around 40,000 more than the 970,000 men who were still bachelors.

A dating app based in the United States reported last year that the city was the first market they had targeted outside the US, as there were nearly two million single people here.

The app – Coffee Meets Bagel – claimed that Hong Kong’s lonely hearts were among the world’s most desperate to find love; its data showed local users used it more often than people in other markets, with nearly 70 per cent logging on every day.

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In Hong Kong, women who are 30 and unmarried are often referred to as sing nui in Cantonese, which means “leftover women”. But this derogatory label is not equally applied to single men. Men who have a successful career and choose to remain single are revered as jun sek wong lo ng, or “diamond bachelors”, regardless of their age.

But for career women who voluntarily choose a single lifestyle because they don’t want to lower their standards to find a partner, their image is a far less positive one. They are labelled undesirable or discarded, and hence given the “leftover” label. This discriminatory attitude is ubiquitous – from the workplace to social circles.

Since for many women, there is no escaping this fact, who can blame them if they are desperate to find a partner?

I’ve heard older Chinese people use a rather offensive phrase to describe single women, calling them sip jo lah, which literally translates as “a small plank of wood wedged under a stove”. It’s a way to belittle the social status of an unmarried woman by implying that her worth is as insignificant as a tiny piece of wood used to stabilise a cooking utensil.

Things haven’t improved much over the years. The local mentality remains the same, that if a woman can’t get a man in time to produce a family, she will reach her “expiry date” and be forever left behind in the dating and mating game.

This is a pernicious misconception, or worse, a lie.

The local mentality remains the same, that if a woman can’t get a man in time to produce a family, she will reach her ‘expiry date’ and be forever left behind

It’s undeniable that more and more women have chosen to fly solo because they are confident in themselves and happy with their professional and personal lives. Also, many have realised they can find happiness outside of a romantic relationship and will not compromise or lower their standards just to fit in with society’s conventional expectations.

The recent rise of women in mainland China reflects this phenomenon and should not be underestimated. Their success in the business world has been a powerful force, and nothing seems to hold them back – except maybe the fear of being single and sidelined by society. Many are regularly portrayed in mainland media and in the public discourse as spent goods.

There are laws to protect women who are pregnant or new mothers, but there is none for single women, who contribute just as much to firms and society. 

The future of the world economy lies increasingly in the hands of women, and many of them are single, ambitious, career-driven individuals. Businesses should be more mindful of discrimination against single women and should recognise their value.

Women, single or not, should start talking about the issue and make others aware of this unfair perception and treatment. Women should stand up for each other. 

Do it now or risk being “left behind” in this fight.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post