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March 8, 2011

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After all, she is a woman

CHINESE women are equal to men under law and enjoy many protections but thousands of years of fixed perceptions still pose a challenge to females. Yao Minji takes a look on International Women's Day. "

After all, she is a woman." When Chinese American Amy Yang first heard those words from a female Chinese colleague, she realized she was in for "culture shock."

That was two years ago when the 36-year-old financial consultant had just arrived in Shanghai (the first time in China) from Los Angeles, taking a position vacated by a woman who left to join her husband in Paris, with no job offers waiting for her there.

Yang, who recently got married, appreciates the personal decision to put family first but still considers it a pity because her predecessor was on the verge of getting a promotion. And Yang was clearly critical.

Abruptly a female colleague responded, "After all, she is a woman, and that move is simply the right and only choice for a woman."

"I wasn't surprised to hear that kind of comment here in China," says Yang, "but I was shocked to hear it from a professional woman, and what's more, five other women agreed without any hesitation that she should sacrifice her own career."

Yang, a "liberated" woman from LA, was experiencing first-hand the gulf in perceptions between herself and her sisters on the Chinese mainland. During the next two years, these sentiments were repeatedly expressed in one form or another by Chinese women around her - colleagues, friends and relatives.

Particularly disturbing (to Yang) were comments that went like this: After all, I am a woman, of course I will take care of the family when the man earns the money ... After all, I am a woman, of course I should make a sacrifice of my own career ... After all, I'm a woman, of course I have to get married ... After all, I'm a woman, of course I don't need to buy a house or car because a man will buy them for me ... After all, I'm a woman, of course they didn't pick me for the job. It's understandable.

"It was a mystery to me how they could say it so naturally, without the idea of gender equality ever crossing their mind," says Yang. "These women didn't seem to think they were at a disadvantage compared with me or that somehow they were being treated in a way that was unequal and unfair.

"But I have to admit that many urban women live rather comfortably, and to some extent women are better protected in Shanghai than in many parts of the United States."

According to Professor Wang Jufen, who heads the Women's Studies Center of Fudan University, the perception gap between Yang and Chinese mainland females is due, if not to a clash, at least a big difference, between modern Western gender ideology and the traditional Chinese social ideology about women's nature and their proper roles in a well-ordered and harmonious society.

For a long time, some Chinese male scholars even tried to explain the role assignment of the two genders through the traditional Chinese ideas of yin and yang.

They claimed that women are yin whereas men are yang, and each shall remain in their assigned areas - women active domestically and men outside of the household - without any encroachment. They argued that overturning the order of yin and yang would cause huge disruption to society.

It was only in recent years that some scholars pointed out that yin and yang, interchangeable as they are, are not directly pointing to women or men. Men at times can also be yin, while women yang, case by case.

In China, there's also a gap between the well developed legal protections (officially at least) for women and the single-child family structure that imposes a lot of stress.

"China is not only undergoing a great economic transformation, but also a greater social and cultural one. And the latter always takes longer time - changing the ideas enshrined over thousands of years is always a difficult job, not matter how well your laws and policies have been crafted," Wang tells Shanghai Daily.

For most older women, however highly educated, it is difficult to change the principle of always putting family and children first, even at the cost of personal satisfaction or fulfillment. The idea that a woman is entitled to personal fulfillment and that she can manage both family and career (or other pursuits) is alien.

This is one reason behind the low percentage of women in public offices in Shanghai, though already higher than national average. Only slightly over 20 percent of the city's representatives to the country's lawmaking body National People's Congress and political advisory body National People's Political Consultative Conference are women, far below the international standard of around 30 percent, according to Wang.

She wants the government to train and promote women cadres and to really implement gender equity, but she warns against too much preferential treatment for women.

"If you have too many preferable policies for women, it simply makes businesses think twice before employing them," she adds.

Further, in an interesting twist of "protectionism," women are generally required to retire at age 55, and men at 60. Most seem to like that, but some women want to work and don't think they should be deprived of five years' pension because of their sex.

Many younger women have received equal or even better educations than men, thanks to the one-child family planning policy, and they often find themselves torn between their personal quests and the family pressures from both families - their parents and in-laws.

"In some senses, these young women are even more overwhelmed than their mothers or grandmothers, because they are forced to become the only one responsible for the all-important mission of carrying the bloodline for two families, with nobody else to share the stress and expectations," Wang says.

Shanghai Daily polled 12 people - men and women, academics and celebrities as well as ordinary people - and asked this: "Are women and men treated equally in Shanghai?"

More than half the people found the question absurd. It was the first time they had ever been asked such a thing. It hadn't crossed their minds to think about it.

The sociologist Wang and Lily Yan, a young oil painter and installation artist, were the only two who said "it is not equal."

All the others answered "yes" except for Wang Anyi, who answered yes-but.

Wang, a famous writer and chairman of Shanghai Writer's Association, says, "it (gender equality, fairness, opportunity) is a complicated and subtle issue."

She cites the example of writers in Shanghai. On the surface, treatment is perfectly equal - women writers earn the same pay as their male counterparts, and they have equal opportunity to get their books published. And Wang herself leads the writer's association.

"But I'm a bit concerned about trends and the term 'beauty writers' (about a woman author's appearance), which puts a female author in the position of a product, making her beauty one of the indexes for the product's value. So is that gender equality? I'm not sure," Wang wonders.

This emphasis on a woman's appearance (but a man's position and earning power) and her destined maternal role is pervasive.

Sociologist Wang also believes Chinese women actually had higher status and respect before the rapid economic development of the past three decades. Now that China is wealthier, old patterns and perceptions of women and their proper role are kicking in again. And the market economy is ruthless and is seeking efficient employees who don't require maternity leave and have to deal with children.

"At least, there was a feeling that women could achieve anything that men could."

These perceptions about women and pressures for them to conform finally overwhelmed 31-year-old Amanda Liu, a Shanghai native, who is taking maternity leave and worries about slipping backward on the career track.

She is a manager in the Shanghai branch of a Fortune 500 company and concerned she will lose her position when she returns and be perceived as less committed to work (less promotable) because of her family. "I didn't and don't want this child," Liu says. "I have been fighting and resisting getting pregnant for five years, but finally I had to give in."

"I just can't withstand the pressure from four parents of two families, let alone all the nagging relatives who kept guessing that one of us was infertile. I had to give in, especially when my husband finally took the other side seven months ago, and told me, 'Let's just have a baby, for the parents," Liu concludes.

Her case exemplifies what the sociologist Wang calls "a personal choice from pressure," in today's China. "Although we have a very well-rounded legal system to protect women, although we have had a lot of brave and excellent women role models, although our understanding of gender equality has been greatly improved, the mainstream value for women still has to involve a family, and often requires women, not men, to sacrifice for the family," she says.

"After all, she's a woman."


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