Last month saw China’s first ever gender discrimination case. Many have concluded that it will be a turning point for gender equality within the unequal communist state. When a private tutoring firm told a female graduate they would not employ her because they wanted a man, she sued them (Branigan, 2014). The firm was ordered to pay £3000 damages. Although her response was unusual, the problem is not. Differential treatment of women is widespread with 90% of females saying they have experienced discrimination (Branigan, 2014). China already has numerous gender equality legislations so in a society – which by its own admission – is littered with gender inequalities, is one successful gender discrimination case really going to make a difference?
Origins of Gender Discrimination
Gender bias is entrenched in China’s history (Wang, 2005). The existence of notorious social practices such as female infanticide, foot binding and concubinage (keeping a second woman because a wife cannot provide a son) stem from the patriarchal ideology of Confucianism (Rosenlee, 2006). Confucianism is an ethical practice still followed within China. The most important cultural imperatives stemming from Confucianism are: the continuity of the family name, filial piety (respect for ones parents) and ancestor worship (Rosenlee, 2006). These ideas converge as a basis for generating, sustaining and justifying the social abuse of women; they reduce a woman’s value to her ability to provide a son. Such beliefs continue to exert influence within China despite the Constitution stating that men and women are equal (Schaffer et al, 2000). With male superiority so firmly rooted within Chinese society and culture, the effect of this recent court case is brought into question.
Confucianism has created a preference for sons by helping to instigate economic benefits for males (Wang, 2005). For example, males have better job opportunities and higher wages (Hesketh et al, 2011). For parents this financial incentive is of great importance as – unlike daughters – sons remain financially attached to the household for their whole lives (Wang, 2005). Resultantly, by having a son parents are offered future financial security (Hesketh et al, 2011). For centuries son preference has led to post-natal discrimination against girls. Evidence from many societies shows that modernisation increases the status of women and results in a decline in son preference (Xiaolei et al, 2013). However, in China despite rapid modernisation, urbanisation and huge improvements in women’s participation within the workforce, son preference prevails (Xiaolei et al, 2013). This is evidence of how deeply rooted son preference ideologies are. Thus, further suggesting that the recent court case will do little for gender discrimination apart from temporarily bringing it into the media spotlight.
Levels of gender discrimination
Women fail to be equally represented within executive and managerial positions (Bell et al, 2002). Roles within state owned enterprises, the government and engineering are dominated by men whilst women concentrate in low paid commerce and public health sectors (Baver et al, 1992). As explained by Schaffer et al (2000), economic reforms moved China from a centrally controlled economy – within which women were protected by government legislation – towards a free market economy which allows employers to discriminate. This led to gender evaluation; the use of gender for job related decisions including hiring and wages (Schaffer et al, 2000). Administrative controls were replaced by the personal preference of managers, 89% of which are males (Schaffer et al, 2000). Males are likely to be hired instead of females if those managers are influenced by Confucian traditions. This suggests the court case will do little to combat the infrastructural inequalities within independent companies as they are reliant upon individual ideologies, which have deep cultural roots.
Lui et al (2000) suggests wage differentials result from economic reforms moving the economy towards a free market economy meaning companies are in pursuit of profit. This is the notion that wage differentials are not the result of gender discrimination but of marketization. However, companies are taking advantage of Confucian attitudes towards women in order to generate profits. As China’s companies become more competitive there may be a reduction in discrimination as those which do not discriminate will employ the most productive women (Lui et al, 2000). However, this is not the case within Britain which has seen numerous high profile court cases. After an 8 year struggle for equal pay 1500 women won £200,000 each from the NHS (Varkik, 2005). Despite this highly successful case the Equal Opportunities Commission receives 700 calls a year and women still earn 17.2% less than their male counterparts (Varkik, 2005). This suggests that a single case in China, a country within which gender discrimination has much deeper roots than within Britain, will have little impact other than temporarily bringing the issue into the public eye.
Bishop et al (2005) state the current wage gap is a result of difference in opportunities afforded to women which reduce their educational achievement. Gender-based quotas and enrolment policies mean women often have to score higher in entrance exams for certain degrees (CLB, 2014). Ultimately, discrimination in education leads to discrimination in the workplace, as to gain an executive position higher education is required. This suggests in order to minimise gender discrimination, work needs to be done within the education system. Thus the recent court case will only be advantageous for Chinese women if changes are made across the board.
Gender discrimination is an enduring issue within China. Women face educational discrimination, employment inequalities and wage differentials. Although these problems are not unique to China, discriminatory ideologies are much more firmly rooted within its culture and society than anywhere else around the world. Whether the first gender discrimination case will make a difference to attitudes within China remains to be seen. However, if evidence is taken from more liberal countries – like Britain – we can be fairly certain little change will result. Thus, although its contribution to change is minimal, the case has the potential to facilitate discussions by putting the spotlight on gender discrimination.
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Bishop et al (2005) ‘Economic transition, gender bias and the distribution of earnings in China’, Economics of Transition. 3(2): pp 239 – 259
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