An ominous growth in the number of single women has escorted rapid economic growth in Shanghai, Beijing and other coastal cities, leading population research experts to call for an end to traditional prejudices that label unwed women second-class citizens.
The 2010 census shows Shanghai has more than 500,000 single women aged between 20 and 50, a rise from fewer than 100,000 in the early 1990s, Chen Yaya, a population researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times Tuesday.
"The financial independence of professional white-collar workers has allowed women to lead a happily single life," Chen said.
"Marriage is traditionally seen as a safety net for women but it is no longer so for women with relatively high salaries. 'Marrying up' is no longer considered an achievement."
The Chinese mainland has seen four waves of singledom, Chen explained: The first in the 1920s when marital laws abolished bigamy, the second in the late 1970s when long-delayed divorces could finally be facilitated at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the third in the early 1990s with the rise of modern feminism and the fourth being the first where women were truly able to choose the single life.
"Now career-driven women can decide their own way of life, especially when the rising divorce rate in urban areas has cast doubt on the link between happiness and marriage."
China's divorce rate has reached an all-time high. More than 465,000 married couples filed for divorce in the first quarter of 2011, a 17.1 percent annual increase according to marriage and divorce registration statistics released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in June.
More than 82 percent of women saw singledom as a positive way of life, according to Chen's demographic studies in 2007. Single women still face pressure from society, Chen said.
Society still regards unwed women "like aliens," she said. "And the media somehow labels single women in their 30s as 'left on the shelf.'"
Discrimination is worse when single women have children, according to Chen's studies.
"A single mother in Shanghai has to pay 15,919 yuan ($2,460) to the city government to obtain household registration for her child while married mothers get a pregnancy subsidy of 10,000 to 30,000 yuan," Chen said. "It means the authorities still deem single mothers second-class citizens by denying them equal benefits."
Many companies do not grant single women paid pregnancy leave, Chen said, adding extra financial stress to single mothers.
Studies have found more than 4 percent of single women in Shanghai are gay: a "liberating figure," Chen said.
"Women in Shanghai are more gender-conscious than in Beijing or other coastal cities," Chen said. "It's good news for sexual equality."