The century-long struggle of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has been a process that has fundamentally changed the fates and futures of Chinese women. In the new era, when common prosperity becomes the clear goal of the Party and the country, further improving the socio-economic status of women and achieving gender equality are inevitable requirements for achieving this goal and undertaking the CPC’s historical mission. The promotion of gender equality has become an urgent task in contemporary China.
Achieving gender equality is not only an essential part of achieving the goal of socialist common prosperity, but also a realistic requirement for addressing current gender inequalities. At the same time, it is also a prerequisite for responding to many of the major challenges we face today. Take the low birth rates that our country is currently facing as an example. One of the primary reasons behind the failure to raise birth rates via the new fertility policies in recent years is the low willingness to have children.
Indeed, the high cost of childbirth and parenting has, to some extent, reduced people’s willingness to have children, and an important part of this cost is the “motherhood penalty” for women. Studies have found that having children has a negative impact on Chinese women’s wages and ability to receive promotions. This “penalty” exists even before women enter the workforce.
A field experiment conducted by our research team in 24 Chinese cities between 2019 and 2021 found that between two female job applicants with identical qualifications except for the fact that one has a child and the other does not, the mother is 13% less likely to be interviewed for a job than the other applicant. Therefore, to increase Chinese women’s willingness to have children, it is necessary to promote gender equality in employment and income.
As gender equality is important in the economic sphere, researchers are seeking public policies which can achieve it. Currently, scholars are mainly looking to Nordic welfare states such as Finland, Sweden, and Norway for inspiration. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, these countries have achieved a remarkable level of gender equality. They have been able to do so thanks to generous two-breadwinner family policies, a well-developed public service sector, and strict labor market regulation.
First, there are three main types of family policies: market-based family policies where the government does not interfere with the gendered division of labor; general family policies where women are encouraged to take on traditional home-based caregiving roles; and two-breadwinner family policies which help women cope with “work-family” conflicts and thus promote women’s participation in labor.
Nordic countries help families, especially women, to balance work and family responsibilities and promote the latter’s employment participation through pay-related and longer maternity leave policies (including maternity, paternity, and parental leave) and public childcare systems that are financially supported by the government.
Secondly, the public service sector, as an important part of the labor-intensive service sector, employs many female workers, thus directly contributing to women’s labor force participation. Finally, with the strong support of trade unions, Nordic countries have implemented strict labor market control policies to regulate corporate employment practices and promote gender equality in employment. By being a legislator, employer, and regulator, welfare states have guaranteed equal labor rights for women and laid the foundations for equal economic status between genders.
Welfare states have made remarkable achievements in promoting women’s participation in the labor force. However, some have pointed out the problems behind these achievements, the so-called “paradox of welfare states.”
The paradox is that although welfare states intend to enhance women’s labor participation and strengthen their economic positions, and have indeed partially achieved this goal, this has paradoxically had unintended effects on the quality of women’s employment and their career development.
There are three reasons for this: first, longer paid maternity leave, while giving women more time to rest and recover after childbirth, reduces women’s labor supply and discourages women workers from accumulating experience and attaining promotions in the workplace, thus hindering their career advancement.
Secondly, many jobs available to women in the public service sector are low to mid-range positions (such as nursing and caregiving) with lower skill levels and limited development prospects.
Finally, strict labor market regulations, designed to ensure gender equality in employment, limit the means by which firms can avoid the costs of family policies, thereby reducing the incentives for firms to hire and promote female workers.
While welfare states clearly intend to help women cope with “work-family” conflicts, if this “help” takes place in a social context characterized by the expectation that women should take on the traditional roles of wife and mother, the result may instead be consolidation of women’s traditional roles. This is the essence of the “welfare state paradox.”
The “welfare state paradox” has made us realize that well-intended policy designs in the pursuit of gender equality do not necessarily lead to true gender equality, especially in terms of quality of employment. If we take the share of women in managerial positions (i.e. the first major category under the International Standard Classification of Occupations system—“legislators, senior officials and managers”) in a country as a measure of the quality of women’s employment, then, according to the International Labour Organization, in 2019, the share of women in managerial positions in Luxembourg and Denmark, where two-breadwinner family policies are fairly well-developed, was only 25.8% and 26.8%. In Australia and the United States, which have market-based family policies and little policy support for female employment, this share was as high as 39.2% and 40.7%, respectively.
In other words, if we compare the main OECD countries, we find that the degree of sophistication of two-breadwinner family policies is often negatively correlated with the quality of female employment as measured by the share of women in managerial positions.
However, even with this empirical evidence, we can see some countries that deviate from this trend, such as France and Sweden, two welfare states with strong two-breadwinner family policies and related employment support measures for women. In these countries, the share of women in managerial positions has not been negatively affected, and has remained at a high level of around 40% for years. How did they manage to escape the welfare state paradox?
The social norms of both countries, which emphasize gender equality and do not impose traditional gender roles, allow men and women to select their work-family trade-off without being bound by tradition. Meanwhile, with the support of relevant policies, women can choose to be work-oriented and men can choose to be family-oriented.
As a result, women are no longer systematically the primary users of benefits such as maternity leave, thus eliminating the additional family policy costs that companies face when hiring and promoting women.
Furthermore, both countries have relied on a range of policy tools (such as tax cuts) that go beyond executive orders to offer economic incentives when implementing family policies. As a result, companies are no longer tempted to avoid policy costs by undermining women’s career development, and instead are guided by policy incentives to adopt gender-friendly employment practices.
Inspirations for China
In the face of important goals such as common prosperity and major challenges such as low fertility rates, China can draw three lessons from international experience.
First, two-breadwinner family policies can boost women’s economic participation in a quantitative sense. This has implications for reversing the decline in China’s female labor force participation rate since the reform and opening up [Chinese women’s labor force participation is still among the top in the world].
Secondly, two-breadwinner family policies can have a negative impact on the quality of female employment through the “welfare state paradox.” To avoid this problem, China needs to adopt policy instruments based on economic incentives rather than administrative orders.
Finally, a relaxed and progressive gender perspective is necessary for a family policy to truly promote the economic advancement of women and narrow the economic gender gap. Fostering such a gender perspective is a fundamental prerequisite for all family policy interventions aimed at promoting gender equality.
Meng Ke is an associate professor from the School of Public Policy & Management, Tsinghua University.