When Janice Zhang went job hunting in March, at every interview the 33-year-old was asked the same question: Was she married yet?
Zhang works in human resources in the Chinese city of Chengdu, so is familiar with the concerns her potential employers had in mind — because she’s asked them herself. Would she be pregnant soon? How many children does she plan to have? How much maternity leave will she take? Will she quit her job after becoming a mom?
“Having already reached my 30s, I am seen by companies as a big uncertainty — one that might get married and pregnant at anytime,” said Zhang, who requested to use a pseudonym because she doesn’t want to be identified by her employer.
In recent years, many women like Zhang have reported facing job discrimination based on their marital or parental status — a reflection of China’s workforce gender gap, poor enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, and the impact of its two-child policy, according to a report released this week by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Now, with the Chinese government allowing all married couples to have a third child, some Chinese women are worried the discrimination will only get worse.
“My first reaction upon hearing about this policy was that it will further squeeze the space for women in the workplace,” said Melody Chen, 29, a manager at an internet finance firm in the southern city of Guangzhou.
“Even if you already have two children, [employers] will worry that you might want a third,” she said.
For decades, most couples in China were only allowed to have a single child, and faced heavy fines or forced abortions if they violated the one-child policy.
That rule helped curtail the growth of China’s massive population — now 1.4 billion — but is also partly responsible for a looming demographic crisis. Faced with a shrinking workforce and an aging population, the government scrapped the one-child policy in 2016 and began allowing couples to have two children.
That led to a wave of gender and pregnancy-based discrimination, according to the HRW report, which drew on studies by Chinese organizations, Chinese social media reports, news coverage, court documents, and interviews with women’s rights activists.
According to the report, many Chinese companies and employers are reluctant to pay maternity leave. Childless women are, therefore, often viewed as a “time bomb” because they could have as many as two children — and therefore take maternity leave twice.
In China, women are entitled to 98 days of maternity leave according to national law, with an extra 15 days for each additional child in multiple births. Many provinces, however, have extended their maternity leave beyond the national minimum to between 128 days and a year.
Employers are required to pay maternity insurance so that after a female employee gives birth she will receive a monthly allowance from the government fund.
However, such payouts are capped. If the employee’s monthly salary exceeds the maximum allowance payable by the local government, the employer will need to fill in the gap.
Women with one child are also seen as a liability since they may have a second child, while those with two children are sometimes viewed as too busy with childcare to be effective workers, researchers say.
Outdated gender norms mean women are still primarily responsible for raising children.
“The Chinese government has … failed to address the still disproportionate and discriminatory impact of its child policies on women in the workplace,” said the report, which urged the government to abolish its population control measures and take greater anti-discriminatory action.
On Monday, the Chinese government said it would “protect the legal rights and interests of women in employment” after announcing the three-child policy. But on Chinese social media, critics say the promise was too vague, and that similar pledges in the past had failed to lead to substantial improvement.
Growing gender inequality
Gender inequality in China has worsened in recent years, said Yue Qian, assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.
In 2020, China’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index fell for the 12th consecutive year, to 107 out of 156 countries. That marked a steep decline — in 2008, China ranked 57 on the index.
Part of the problem is the country’s economic boom, which has created an intense work culture and “extraordinarily long work hours,” said Qian. Some work schedules are so extreme that abbreviations are used to describe them: “996” meaning 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, or even “007” signifying midnight to midnight seven days a week.
While overwork is a common problem facing working mothers in many parts of the world, in China, it is exacerbated by traditional gender roles that place the bulk of housework and childcare on women.
“Overwork culture contributes to gender equality because of the expectation that men and women have to work long hours and they cannot take time off,” Qian said. “All these expectations disadvantage mothers with young children in the labor market, especially given that men contribute very little to housework or childcare in China.”
Inequality appears to have increased even further since the scrapping of the one-child policy in 2016 failed to increase birth rates, said the HRW report.
So the government started issuing propaganda encouraging women to stay home and have children.
For instance, an article published by state-run news agency Xinhua in 2016 said the two-child policy would allow more working women to “return to their families.” Many of these women are educated, and thus “better understand their role in the family,” the article said.
Other state-run publications have echoed this sentiment; in a 2017 piece in China Youth Daily, the head of a major university’s department of social work said: “Because mothers have a natural maternal instinct, they’re better suited to taking care of children at home.”
Despite the increased pressure on women to have children, they are given fewer resources to do so while juggling their professional lives, said Qian.
In a 2017 article published in the scientific journal Sex Roles, Chinese researchers argued the shift reflected China’s economic transformation and the accompanying change in gender ideology.
China’s shift from a centralized, socialist system to a market economy placed greater emphasis on efficiency, they said. At the same time, changing ideology put women back in the home to care for their husbands and children.
A decline in state-provided welfare has revived traditional patriarchy and gendered division of labor, reflected in the workplace discrimination we see today, they wrote.
Fired for getting pregnant
Gender inequality is also evident in the workplace — companies often openly have discriminatory hiring requirements, fire employees who get pregnant, or implement policies to discourage their employees from having children, according to the HRW and state media reports.
Song Qiang, the head of HR at a Chinese company, told China Youth Daily in February that many recruiters look for male resumes — and that even when women are hired, they are typically relegated to “auxiliary jobs” that are lower-paid with a more difficult promotion track.
“About 90% [of recruiters] all choose men, although there’s no denying that some women can also do the job,” he said.
In some companies, female employees of childbearing age were told to wait their turn to take maternity leave — and could be fired or punished if they became pregnant without following the “schedule,” said the HRW report.
One such woman, in Shandong province, was fined $300 by her employer for having a second child earlier than the time decreed in her contract, Beijing Youth Daily reported in 2017. Her contract had “scheduled” her to give birth in 2020, but she got pregnant in 2016 — a sign she was “not being honest,” a spokesperson from her company was quoted as saying. Such contracts are legally prohibited, and the woman’s fine was refunded, according to the article.
Even if employees don’t sign such a contract, they can be sidelined, demoted or fired with little explanation after becoming pregnant. According to the HRW report, 47% of cases handled by a women’s legal aid group between 2017 and 2019 were related to pregnancy-based discrimination, with many saying they had been fired, forced to resign, had their positions shifted or wages withheld.
In 2019, the Chinese government issued a directive banning a wide range of discriminative measures against women in the hiring process, including asking women about their marital and childbearing status.
But the practice has continued. According to a survey by Zhaopin.com, one of China’s biggest recruiting websites, 58% of female job seekers said they were asked about their marital and childbearing status at interviews in 2020.
Zhang, the human resources professional in Chengdu, said during her job search, she repeatedly told employers about the government ban, but they insisted on asking.
“I can understand why employers would ask these questions — they are the ones who have to shoulder all the cost of maternity leave,” she said.
Zhang said the government should subsidize employers for maternity pay. “Childbearing is not only a personal matter, it should be supported by society as a whole, including the government. But the government is leaving individuals and companies to shoulder all the cost,” she said.
Cultural shift needed
Though China has a number of anti-discrimination laws, there are gaps that allow discrimination to continue, or that discourage women from pursuing justice, said the HRW report.
For instance, the law on the protection of women’s rights and interests prohibits companies from firing female employees or lowering their salary during their pregnancy or maternity leave, but it provides few specifics on enforcement.
The labor contract law offers compensation for unlawful termination — but one main difficulty for victims is proving their termination was due to being pregnant rather than other reasons employers may cite, such as economic difficulties.
“It’s a good thing that we have laws to regulate general relations in the labor market — but it also depends on enforcement,” said Qian. “If there is no strong enforcement of those regulations, it’s really easy for employers to make gender-based hiring and promotion decisions.”
Victims may also feel it’s not worth pursuing a legal case, given the often long and tedious process and the low potential compensation generally awarded, said the HRW report. The threat of retaliation further deters women from filing complaints or legal cases, since there have been several cases of employers suing former employees for defamation.
In January this year, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security acknowledged the discrimination problem, as well as the growing demand for extending maternity leave and establishing paternity leave (which does not currently exist). However, it added that doing so would increase labor costs for companies and affect their “production and operation.”
The agency pledged to study the issues and propose amendments to existing laws to “safeguard women’s legal employment rights,” without offering any specifics.
Activists and researchers say it’s not enough. The HRW team that authored the report urged the government to amend its existing laws, increase penalties for discriminatory employers, prohibit job advertisements from specifying childbearing status requirements, and halt propaganda encouraging women to stay home and have children.
China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security could not be reached for comment.
But institutional changes alone aren’t enough. A cultural shift is also necessary, said Qian.
“We need to change the public perception of children,” she said. “In a lot of discourses, children are considered a public good because children will become tomorrow’s workforce.”
“Both employers and the government [in China] think it’s your personal decision to have children. But children are not a private good — they’re a public good,” she added. “It’s the government’s responsibility to provide support for families with children.”
While the Chinese government is encouraging couples to have more children, many Chinese young women are resisting by delaying or even forgoing marriage and childbearing, Qian said.
Zhang, the 33-year-old in Chengdu, is part of that resistance.
“I’m determined not to get married or have children,” she said. “It is not only a personal choice, but also my political statement against [gender inequality] in the whole system.”