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April 28, 2011

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When should women retire?

BY law most Chinese women must retire five years earlier than men and increasingly women experts and professionals say that's unfair and their careers should not be cut short. Yao Minji takes a look for Labor Day.

Zhang Yiqing, a 56-year-old retired general manager of a small trading company, became bored and listless, prone to minor ailments just a month after she stopped working a year ago.

"I was just too used to the busy life (as a general manager) monitoring everything, and felt lost and bored staying at home all the time with an ayi," Zhang tells Shanghai Daily.

"After all, I'm only 56, highly energetic, with enough professional skills and experience to climb onto another peak of my career. It feels really bad to stop at this time," she adds.

Zhang says that she should be able to work for at least another five years, and retire at the same age - and with the same social security benefits - as her male colleagues.

Because of her good relations at her old company, she has been hired back as a marketing consultant, earning equivalent salary, but not building up her social security retirement payments.

Since social security payment depends in part on the years one has worked, Zhang will receive somewhat less than her male colleagues in the same position, who work five years longer.

China's mandated retirement age, especially the five years' difference between men and women, has been controversial since the late 1990s. Women retire at 50 or 55; men retire at 55 or 60. (See box/sidebar)

Retirement age for both men and women has become a pressing issue in recent years, as life expectancy rises and people look forward to many more productive years.

At the same time, there's less physical labor overall, more office workers, more technology, a better working environment and, most important, many more female intellectuals and skilled workers.

The issue of differential retirement age for women is often in the spotlight and many women call it discriminatory, saying they have an equal right to work.

Every year proposals to extend women's retirement age are presented to the National People's Congress, but none has passed; all must be worked out and approved by the government beforehand.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security has announced it is working on changes in overall policy.

"It's a very complex issue," said Yin Weimin, minister of human resources and social security. He spoke to reporters in March during a National People's Congress session when retirement age was in the spotlight again.

"I can only say that having women retire later would be the trend and direction in the long term, but currently it is still under study. We will conduct careful research and offer some suggestions," he said.

The ministry has also been working on extending men's retirement age as well. Experts point out that, as in the West, social security is extremely costly and costs are quickly rising.

The payment of social security after retirement was designed and calculated according to the average number of years expected to death after retirement. That used to be around 10 years. Now the number has risen to around 20, especially in big cities such as Shanghai. This puts a lot of pressure on the national social security account.

Women divided

While many women intellectuals and experts wish to continue working for at least five more years, most women manual laborers are opposed to working longer. Many are physically tired and the gap between their salaries and monthly social security payments isn't very much, due to their relatively low income.

"I would love to retire now, if that's possible, since I'll only get 50 yuan (US$7.70) less a month after I retire, without doing anything. Why shouldn't I?" asks Wang Mei, a 48-year-old worker in a plastics factory.

Wang's son got married last spring and expects baby in a year. Wang wants to retire as early as possible to care for her grandchild.

Wang is not the only woman worker who thinks that way and is satisfied with the status quo, according to a retirement age survey released on March 29 by the Women's Studies Institute of China and the International Labor Organization Beijing Bureau.

The report sampled 4,188 valid paper questionnaires handed out last September to women in Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Sichuan provinces.

It asks whether they agree or disagree with the idea retiring later, at the same age as male workers or cadres.

According to the results cited by Xinhuanet, 51.1 percent of all respondents said the difference in male-female retirement age is "unreasonable;" 58.1 percent said men and women workers should retire at the same age; 66.8 percent said men and women cadres should retire at the same age.

More than 60 percent of female cadres and intellectuals want to retire five years later, but slightly more than half of the female workers surveyed not want to retire later.

On the other hand, many younger women also oppose later retirement, which allows their older colleagues or managers to occupy the higher positions longer, limiting their own opportunities for promotion.

For example, 23-year-old Judy Feng, a first-year employee at a state-owned company, has been having issues with her two older colleagues in a department of five women. Feng is the youngest; two are in their second year and two women are in their early 50s, due to retire at 55.

"They are just regular office workers who do things like making tea, copying files, filling forms and answering the phone. But they order us like managers and just gossip about their families and the companies all the time," says Feng.

Feng is most upset that the two older women occupy the job quota and get better benefits than Feng and others, without doing any real work. Chinese state-owned companies and entities all have numerical hiring quotas; those with quota jobs get better pay and benefits.

"Of course, I totally support it if women engineers and experts want to work longer and contribute more to society with their skills and knowledge, but not the unskilled and regular workers," Feng emphasizes.

'M' careers

"Research shows that female scientists and experts learn and grow professionally in the shape of an 'M,' which means that they have two career peaks, one before giving birth and the other after their child becomes mature," says Professor Wang Enduo, a researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences.

"So 55 years old is an academic peak for scientists, but many female researchers are forced to retire at this age, which is such a pity for both their fields and the individuals," Wang says.

Wang, like many experts, suggests a more flexible retirement policy, like that in many Western countries, which leaves the retirement decision to be negotiated by the individual and the company.

The same point about productivity and a second career peak is true for middle-ranking female managers, according to Dana Chen, an experienced human resources researcher who just retired at age 55. "Women in their 50s, with their children already married and independent, tend to care more about their work, compared with their younger colleagues who have little children. They are also more experienced and disciplined, and it is too bad they have to retire early," she says.

Court case

In a famous Shanghai court case decided in late 2009, a woman lost her lawsuit against a state-owned company that had rejected her application to retire later than 55. She argued that her work was highly specialized and highly intellectual and required a high-ranking expert.

The policy for all state-owned and private companies states that "high-ranking female experts, if they are healthy and wish to do so, can retire at age 60." The same goes for men, but five years later.

The woman said she was forced to retire, though she was healthy and made clear she wanted to work longer. All procedures were conducted in secret and without her participation or signature, she said. The company disputed that she was uniquely qualified as an expert, and the court agreed.

The case lasted for more than a year. It was only one of many court cases involving both women and men challenging the retirement age. But individuals rarely win such lawsuits, especially against state-owned companies.

Most women compromise rather than go to court. The policy for all companies lets the company decide whether the employee satisfies the requirement of high-ranking, specially needed or highly intellectual. Many companies also create problems with salaries, benefits and pensions if employees have disputes.


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