The COVID pandemic was a step backwards for women in China, as uncertainty pushed them out of the workforce. When the World Economic Forum released its first gender gap index in 2006, China ranked in 63rd place out of 115 countries. By 2023, China had fallen to 107th place out of 146 countries. (The WEF looks at four areas to measure progress towards gender parity: economic opportunity, education, health, and political leadership).
“During the pandemic, we saw that a lot of women went back to their families, right? Because if someone has to sacrifice in the family, it’s always the woman,” said Zhu Yanmei, executive vice president at BGI Group, a genomics company, at Fortune China’s ESG Summit in Shanghai on Nov. 2. Women in other economies, like the U.S., India and Japan, also left the workforce in droves during the COVID pandemic.
The pandemic also deepened another challenge, perhaps more concerning to policymakers in Beijing: It accelerated the decline of China’s birth rates, as economic uncertainty and COVID-zero controls drove women to delay having children. New births fell to their lowest level on record in 2022, and the country’s population declined for the first time since the 1960s. Beijing is now struggling to reverse the trend and get fertility rates back up again.
The risk is that a push for women to have children could counteract a drive to improve gender equality. Panelists at the ESG Summit warned that Chinese companies often prioritize male candidates, hurting women in the workplace.
Chinese women spend 2.6 times more time on unpaid domestic labor and childcare compared to men, according to a 2018 study by the World Bank. That extra time spent on the family ultimately hurts women as companies then give men higher pay and more responsibilities, argued Evan Guo, CEO of job listing site Zhaopin.
“Those who spend the most time at the workplace will get the biggest gain, and that will drive females to either to stay away from pregnancy or marriage to devote wholly to the workplace or otherwise they’ll go back to the family,” Zhu added.
Zhu’s model of how prejudice works applies across Chinese companies. In fact, Zhaopin data reported that female hiring managers were more likely to pass over female candidates than male hiring managers, Guo claimed on the panel.
Vivian Jiang, Deloitte China chair, also called for a shift in how Chinese society views gender roles, and said the responsibility of family care should be shared by men and women. “As mothers take maternity leave, it gets difficult for them to go back to their employment,” she said. “Going back to the family should not only be for women, it should be a thing for men as well.”
Panelists gave some suggestions on what companies could do to support women.
Grace Cheng, managing director for Russell Reynolds Associates, an executive search firm, suggested that boards could pay closer attention to diversity and elevating women. “Gender equality could be made into a measurable KPI,” she suggested.
“In the future, we should encourage listed companies to disclose their diversity practices,” Jiang said. (Hong Kong’s stock exchange, a popular listing destination for mainland Chinese companies, will require listed companies to have at least one female board director by the end of 2024.)
Guo said he was more concerned about gender equality at the entry level than higher up the corporate ladder, pointing to barriers to entry and sexual harassment as “something we need to focus on at the moment.”
He suggested that technology can not only improve productivity but can offer flexibility by providing women more opportunities to work-from-home. Zhaopin’s CEO also argued that China needed to provide better childcare, the lack of which has deterred some young families from having children.
Declining birth rates
Beijing is concerned about a declining birth rate in the country, and how that could lead to a smaller workforce. China recently repealed policies that restricted how many children a household can have and is offering incentives like tax breaks and preferential housing for families.
Yet birth rates continue to decline, with experts pointing to factors like the cost of raising a child and a potential drop in a quality of life upon starting a family.
Beijing’s currently all-male leadership is giving some mixed messaging when it comes to supporting both gender equality and fertility. In an October meeting with the All China Women’s Federation, President Xi Jinping called for the establishment of a “childbearing culture” and said women have a critical role in establishing a new “trend of family.”