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February 23, 2010

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Married ladies play dangerous game, lie about wedlock

SOME young married Chinese women lead a secret life. They take off their wedding rings before leaving for work and put them back on when they get home at night. They don't put any family pictures on their office desk or chat with colleagues about love and family.

These double-life young people are known as the yin hun zu, or "married-concealed group" - it has become a buzzword.

It refers to the increasing number of urban young people, aged from 25 to 35 and overwhelmingly women, who hide the fact they are married (some even have children) in the workplace. There are a few men as well.

It's not because these young women want to flirt and be seen by bosses and clients as available - the cover-up is designed to preserve their jobs, allow them to advance and pursue careers.

The basic reason is bias against women employees as less dependable, bound to get married and pregnant and put family first - it's the mommie track thing. Some married men are also seen as putting their family above work, jumping to obey and rush home whenever their wives call them at work.

Of course, the pressure to marry in China is enormous, people are anxious to get married and have children and most show off their married status.

But there is also pressure to succeed at work, enormous pressure in a highly competitive society.

So keeping a marriage secret at work is a double dose of pressure and extremely stressful.

Constantly risking exposure means always living with anxiety. Double lives are fraught with problems and identity issues; it's hard to keep lives separate, remember the lies that must be told and remember to keep them up. Compartmentalizing in this case is very difficult.

"Hiding marriage is the unwritten rule," says Grace Pan, a married master's degree candidate in oil painting.

"Many companies prefer hiring men since women take a long leave when they get pregnant. And they think we work less effectively and put our main focus on family and children after we get married," she says.

Pan says she has encountered problems getting into graduate school because she is married. She applied to several universities but all turned her down. Her professor told her that many universities prefer to recruit men, as do many companies.

It is not at all rare in China to see the words "Men preferred" or "Single women preferred" in job advertisements.

Many employers, especially those where client entertainment is important, consider married women unsuitable for late-night social gatherings. They figure women won't want to stay out late and charm clients and that the mostly male clients would prefer to be around single women.

Dangerous game

Sociologists say the hidden marriage phenomenon is an indication of the unequal relationship between employers and employees, but they also warn the "married-concealed group" about potential trouble.

"Concealing marriage status is a dangerous game," says marriage expert Xu Anqi from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "If someone keeps herself in an artificial single status for the long run, her responsibility for the family will be reduced, which means potential harm to her marriage."

And to her own well-being.

Janice Liu, 27, married and unemployed, is one of the marriage concealers. The former customer relations manager in a small local company is looking for a new job.

Liu says she was forced to leave her first job soon after she got married and was fired from the second when her boss found out she lied about her marital status on her application, checking "single." Now she isn't sure which box to tick.

Meanwhile, there's rising tension between Liu and her mother-in-law over the fact that she keeps hiding and lying about her marriage.

"She doesn't understand why I have to do it for my career. She only follows the old ideas and considers it strange to hide one's marital status. She thinks I'm not taking the marriage seriously," says Liu.

"It's difficult to explain to her. But being young and single is a big plus in my job in customer relations. My clients are not necessarily interested in chasing me, but they are more likely to contact me if I'm single," she adds,

Liu started working in customer relations at a small advertising company after she graduated five years ago. She was soon promoted to assistant manager because of her hard and excellent work and her strong ties with clients. She got married shortly after the promotion; her husband was her boyfriend in university.

"I can't say exactly when and how it all started to change. But I felt it clearly and utterly," recalls Liu. "I worked even harder after getting married, but my boss was less and less satisfied with my proposals. He always joked that I was slacking off because of my family."

Her boss frequently asked when she planned to get pregnant and she said it wasn't on the agenda for at least five years. He didn't believe her.

Male clients joked that she was now "an old married woman" and had to go home early to be with her family. Then they started contacting her single female colleagues for business discussions over dinner, drinks or even golf.

Six months after getting married she was transferred to the administration department and says, "I knew right away I had no future in the company."

The stress at work has affected her family life, too.

"I was always so upset from work, and I would tell my husband that it was because of marrying him that I lost my promising career," she says.

To save her career and marriage, Liu decided to quit and disguise her marriage status in a new company. She ticked the "single" box.

At first, all went well. She told her husband not to call her at work except for real emergencies. She hung out with her single colleagues a lot after work and avoided chatting about relationship with them.

Everyone appreciated her outgoing personality, colleagues enjoyed socializing and the boss appreciated her hard work. Soon she was promoted to customer relations manager.

"I will never forget my unlucky day," says Liu.

She was on the way to meet a client in a hotel lobby with her boss when they suddenly bumped it an old university classmate of hers, who also knew she was married.

Liu tentatively said "Hi," and was almost frozen in terror when he said, "How's your husband?"

"I didn't dare to look at my boss and I can't remember the meeting with clients afterward," recalls Liu.

At the time her boss said nothing, but the next day he called her into his office and fired her "for lying on the job application."

"I was too embarrassed to argue," she says.

Liu complained to her husband about the unfair treatment and he told his mother, but the older woman wasn't sympathetic.

"She accused me of being dishonest. I also know it's wrong to lie but she doesn't understand the reasons. She doesn't understand society these days and bosses today are different from those in her time," she says.

Married guy

Jerry Xu, a 32-year-old sales manager, is one of the relatively few men who lie about being married. This member of the "marriage-concealed group" at first denied to the writer that he had tied the knot.

"If a woman conceals her marriage, many people are actually sympathetic because they understand it's for her career. But if a man like me does it, many people assume it's because I want to have love affairs.

"It's not true," he insists.

Xu got married two years ago and didn't have a big ceremony, they didn't want to waste money. The couple only invited around 20 relatives. They didn't tell colleagues or friends.

"It's my experience that people don't call their married colleagues or friends to go out and socialize because they usually either don't come or have to go home early," says Xu.

His wife isn't demanding, but still Xu thinks that knowledge at work of his marital status could hold him back in his career.

"I don't want them to stereotype me," he says, "or write me off for big promotion."


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