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China's 'second sex'


Three decades after China set off dazzling economic reforms, much has changed for women. But along with new-found freedom has come the risk of being once again marginalised. Many don't hire women in a market with an oversupply of labour as they bring expenses in the form of maternity leaves and childbirth costs.

The question that dashed Angel Feng's job prospects always came last. Shi Zaihong, 41, came to Beijing to work as a nanny in 1987. Today, she works 10 cleaning and child-minding jobs, earning 7, 000 renminbi a month. Fluent in Chinese, English, French and Japanese, the 26-year-old graduate of a business school in France interviewed between January and April with half a dozen companies in Beijing, hoping for her first job in the private sector, where salaries are highest.

"The boss would ask several questions about my qualifications, then he'd say: 'I see you just got married. When will you have a baby?' It was always the last question. I'd say not for five years, at least, but they didn't believe me, " Feng said.

Three decades after China embarked on dazzling economic reforms, much has changed for women. Unlike their mothers, whose working - and, often, private - lives were determined by the state, women today can largely choose their paths. Rural women are no longer tethered to communes;urban women no longer are assigned jobs for life or need permission from work units to marry, although all women must apply for permission to have a child.

Yet along with freedom has come risk, as socialist-era structures are dismantled and powerful cultural traditions that value men over women, long held in abeyance by official Communist support for women's rights, return in force. Many employers are choosing not to hire women in an economy where there is an oversupply of labor and women are perceived as bringing additional expense in the form of maternity leave and childbirth costs. The law stipulates that employers must help cover those costs, and feminists are seeking a system of state-supported childbirth insurance to lessen discrimination.

The result is that even highly qualified candidates like Feng can struggle to find a footing. Practical concerns about coping in a highly competitive world are feeding into a powerful identity crisis among China's women. "The main issue we face is confusion, about who we are and what we should be, " said Qin Liwen, a magazine columnist. "Should I be a 'strong woman' and make money and have a career, maybe grow rich, but risk not finding a husband or having a child? Or should I marry and be a stay-at-home housewife, support my husband and educate my child? Or, should I be a 'fox' - the kind of woman who marries a rich man, drives around in a BMW but has to put up with his concubines?"

Feng found a job at a company that promoted Chinese brands. "It was a really bad place, " she said. Employees were fired immediately after promotional drives to slash costs. Working hours were long. A colleague who suffered a late miscarriage was ordered back to work within three days. Feng's monthly salary was 5, 000 renminbi, or about $745, without benefits.

In July, she quit - for the security of a "semistate" organization run by the Ministry of Education. The pay is lower, about $625 a month, but lunch in the ministry canteen is free, and she gets benefits that hark back to socialist days, including a housing allowance. Hours are fixed, 8:30 a. m. to 5 p. m. , five days a week. Most important, her employer, the China Education Association for International Exchange, does not object to employees' having babies and provides at least 90 days' maternity leave at full pay.

"The state sector is quite popular with women because their rights are better protected there, " said Feng Yuan, head of the Center for Women's Studies at Shantou University.

Guo Jianmei, director of the Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Counseling and Service Center, insists that, over all, women today are in a better position than they were three decades ago.

"They know so much more about their rights, " she said. "They are better educated. For those with a competitive spirit, there's a world of opportunity here now, whether they are businesswomen, scientists, farmers or even political leaders. There really have been huge changes. "

Women's rights are well protected, at least on paper. In 2005, the government amended the landmark 1992 Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, known as the Women's Constitution, to make gender equality an explicit state policy. It also outlawed, for the first time, sexual harassment. Yet gender discrimination is widespread. Only a few women dare to sue employers for unfair hiring practices, dismissal on grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave, or sexual harassment, experts say. Employers commonly specify gender, age and physical appearance in job offers.

There are gaps in the law. A major problem, said Feng Yuan (not related to Angel Feng), is that it does not define gender discrimination. The law also sticks to the longstanding requirement that women retire five years earlier than men at the same jobs, thereby reducing earnings and pensions. In 2008, 67. 5 percent of Chinese women over 15 were employed, according to Yang Juhua of Renmin University of China's Center for Population and Development Studies, citing World Bank statistics. That was a drop from the most recent Chinese government data, from 2000, showing that 71. 52 percent of women from 16 through 54 were employed, compared with 82. 47 percent of men from 16 through 59. Yang has calculated that women earn 63. 5 percent of men's salaries, a drop from 64. 8 in 2000.

And yet there are many stories of individual success, built on hard work and some luck. Shi Zaihong's is one. Born into a poor rural family in the central province of Anhui, Shi, now 41, came to Beijing to work as a nanny in 1987. She earned 40 renminbi a month.

Today, she works 10 cleaning and child-minding jobs, earning 7, 000 renminbi a month. She even bought an apartment just outside Beijing for 500, 000 renminbi - an astonishing achievement for a migrant worker with just five years' education.
The mother of a 16-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, she can now apply for her children to legally join her because buying property confers this right, she said. The children have always lived in her mountain village of 300, with her parents. "Having to leave your children behind is the hardest thing about being a migrant, " she said.

Liu Yan, 42, comes from quite a different background. The daughter of an actor and an opera singer from Sichuan Province in the southwest, she worked at China's first private tour operator and is now a successful business consultant. China's more well-to-do women, she said, are expected to tolerate a husband's multiple mistresses. Concubinage, outlawed by the Communists after they took power in 1949, has re-emerged.

"Most women just assume that sooner or later it will happen, " she said. "Men have power. Women are weak, and they have too much to lose. But I want to be happy. I could not accept that. "

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