Asia Pacific

The Female Factor

For China’s Women, More Opportunities, More Pitfalls

Gilles Sabrie for the International Herald Tribune

Angel Feng, a 26 year-old graduate of a business school in France, in the lobby of the office building in Beijing where she works. More Photos »

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BEIJING — The question that dashed Angel Feng’s job prospects always came last.

Gilles Sabrie for the International Herald Tribune

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. More Photos »

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,” Ms. 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 Ms. 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?”

Ms. 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. Ms. Feng’s monthly salary was 5,000 renminbi, or about $745, without benefits.

In July, she quit — for the security of a “semi-state” 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 job may be “a bit boring,” but for now, she, like others, has made her choice.

“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.

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