True gender equality still a challenge
It is almost obligatory for any debate about gender equality in China to kick off with Mao Zedong’s dictum that “Women hold up half the sky”. At the time, it may have struck the right note, an exhortation for its era and, perhaps too, an oblique reminder that the country’s constitution guarantees women “equal rights with men in all spheres of life”.
But in this day and age, such broad generalisations can’t just be taken at face value. The past few decades have been a period of fast-paced economic reform and unprecedented social change. And while that has brought significant gains in everything from literacy rates and life expectancy, to average incomes and employment, the fact remains that, by international standards, overall progress for women in China has not matched that seen in the rest of the world.
For instance, according to data from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) gender gap index, China’s ranking fell from 63 out of 115 countries in 2006 to 100th out of 144 in 2017. The index measures gender parity – not overall achievement – using four criteria: economic achievement, health, education, and political empowerment.
Other surveys may confirm that China’s rapid modernisation has led to a marked improvement in general living standards and opportunities. But the WEF study leaves little doubt that the process has seen uneven gains between men and women, with pronounced salary gaps and imbalanced political representation being two of the issues most obviously hindering true gender equality.
These concerns, along with the steps needed to address them and help women break the ‘glass ceiling’ in specific areas, will be under the microscope at the upcoming China Conference, which takes place on February 21 at the JW Marriott Hong Kong.
The full-day event, which is organised by the South China Morning Post, will give high-profile figures from government, academia and business the chance to discuss the current challenges, analyse possible solutions, and point the way forward.
The main theme for the conference is ‘The next 40 years: A new chapter in the China story’. The agenda will cover trade, socio-economic, cultural and geopolitical issues, looking beyond the immediate headlines to some of the more seismic developments likely to shape the decades ahead.
More particularly, one panel session will focus on the crucial role of women in the country’s social and economic future. The aim is to encourage substantive debate about participation in the labour force, relative contributions to domestic GDP, and the implications of women now outnumbering men at Chinese universities.
Amid all that, though, the overriding question is why, with all the country’s advances, China is still ranked in the bottom half of global gender gap reports.
Some, taking the easy way out, suggest this can be attributed to longstanding cultural beliefs, clinging to the theory that these somehow remain a considerable hurdle. In their eyes, apparently, it is possible to have a nuclear arsenal, an innovative high-tech sector and an ambitious space exploration programme, but not equal pay for equal work in an office or on the factory floor.
Others acknowledge the existing inadequacies and claim further change is on the way; it is just a matter of time. They point to the examples of individual women who have made it to the top of their fields and, in some cases, won international reputations.
However, as the WEF report indicates, these success stories are very much an exception to the rule. The bigger picture shows China ranks 70th globally in wage equality, that only 17 per cent of senior managers are women, and that the official retirement age is five years earlier than for men, which significantly reduces potential earnings. Clearly, much still needs to be done.
Further details about the conference agenda, confirmed speakers and how to reserve seats can be found at www.chinaconference.hk