On October 29, 2015, through an announcement by its news agency Xinhua, China officially ended its decades-old one-child policy, allowing all married couples to have two children. Though the decision was widely praised by the international media as a significant step of humanity that China has undertaken, not the entire general public in China is thrilled by it, especially not working women.
The one-child policy was first introduced in 1979 as part of the family planning policy to curb the then-surging population in China. Though the authority estimated that the policy has prevented about 400 million births over the past three decades, the policy and its implementation has sparked worldwide criticism, especially over the side effects of the policy which include forced abortion, undocumented children, female infanticide and so forth. Due to the deep-rooted preference over male babies and the poorly-scrutinized implementation of the one-child policy, there are 34 million more males than females in China nowadays.
Despite the huge gap in the proportion of men versus women in the population, men have always been treated much more favorably than women in the workplace. Women do not get as many good job opportunities as men, are constantly denied advancement and long-term career growth, and endure pressure from their families when they devote significant time and energy to work outside the home. The pressure usually peaks when a working woman has her first child. Although there are anti-discrimination laws in China, these laws are barely enforced.
As the world cheers for the overturn of the one-child policy and prepares for the expected baby boom in the next few years, young working women in China who are the products of the one-child policy will have to struggle with a challenging reality. They will now be pressured to have a second child by their close relatives, especially by their grandparents. For many working women in my friend circle, the one-child policy was the only legitimate excuse they could use to resist the pressure from their families to have more children, and ultimately to have the chance to advance their career like their male colleagues. A lot of these women have just spent a few years raising their first child, and are just returning to their careers. Since the second-child policy was officially passed, many of them have received calls and messages from family telling them to be prepared for a second child.
Working women do not only face pressure from family, but also from their workplaces. Many working women are concerned that now the one-child policy is abolished, it will be even more difficult for them to secure a good job because employers now will assume that women would need to take two maternity leaves along their career path. This assumption is not baseless because the parents and grandparents of my generation still firmly believe in the philosophy that one of the symbols of a happy family is to have many children, and as a result, the working women of my generation would be considered as disobedient and given a hard time at home if they don’t fulfill the wishes of their parents and in-laws. It has been only a few months since the announcement of the overturn of the one child policy, but stories are heard all over the country about female job applicants facing all kinds of questions from job interviewers who try to figure out their attitude toward having more than one child. The awkward questions run from direct ones such as “are you planning to have a second child?” to more implicit ones such as “Do you believe that your child needs a companion” or “what’s your parents-in-law’s attitude toward having more than one grandchild?” The presumption that families should consist of more than one child will make the labor market even more favorable toward their male counterparts.
The dilemma caused by the ending of the one-child policy does not exist only among working women, but also amongst their husbands. Given the outrageously high living expenses in many Chinese cities, the policy has little benefit to the working-class women whose families normally do not have the capability to raise a second child. As working moms with one child are facing more difficulty securing their jobs and career development, their husbands are facing the pressure of earning more income to support the potential second child as well as to make up for the income loss of their wives. The family units will likely suffer more economic and emotional stress, and society at large might face even greater gender imbalance and more crisis of family structures.
In order to take the pressure off of the shoulders of Chinese women, other favorable policies need to come along to encourage working women to even consider bearing a second child. Updated policies for gender equality in the workplace must be implemented. Maternity leave laws and laws protecting caregivers’ rights must be enforced to eliminate working women’s fear of losing jobs by have a second child.