Gender matters
Are Chinese women truly equal to men? Are Shanghainese women unique?
Published: Jan 18, 2018 06:38 PM

Do Chinese women enjoy equal social status with Chinese men? Compared with women in developed countries, how do Chinese women rank in social status? Is workplace gender inequality a big issue in China? With those questions in mind, the Global Times reporters hit the streets of Shanghai to interview foreigners for their feedback on the issue.

Photos: VCG, Zhou Xinyu and Xiang Jun/GT

Holding up half the sky

We first asked them to use three to five words to describe Chinese women. "Hard working, family-oriented, shy," together with "ambitious, independent, progressive, focused, determined and bossy" were frequently mentioned words among 10 foreigners.

The word "fighters" was highlighted by Brazilians Giovanni Rodrigues Silva and Jessica Montagna and Quentin Mariner from France. They all feel that Chinese women have to fight for their pursuits and to keep equal and high social status.

Our second question was, "Before you came to China, how did you evaluate Chinese women's social status?" Silva, a lawyer in Brazil before he came to Shanghai for his master's degree, replied that "In my country, we have a very good image about the equality of men and women in China. The Communist [Party of China] government works to equalize men and women."

"Chinese women are seen as either doing nothing with a husband with lots of money, they just drive around and go shopping, or otherwise they work hard for their family. They have to work very hard to earn money for kids in poor areas," said wine businessman Mariner.

Cindy Lee, a South Korean Canadian who once studied in Shanghai but now works in South Korea, told the Global Times that "It was more like Asian women in general that they are submissive, passive and conservative and that they rely lots on men. My image of Asian women is mostly the same for [South] Korea and Japan."

Lee was born in South Korea, grew up in Canada and lived in Shanghai for two years for her master's degree. She now works with a South Korean company in the global business department. "My parents are so-called 'typical' people of their generation, where my dad worked and my mom stayed home and took care of us."

Lee's impression of Chinese women was echoed by most of our interviewees. Emilia Teresa Sroka from Poland said that "they are small, tiny and very sweet."

"Traditionally, 'boy' is considered as a better option in a Chinese family, like in our country. Learn about Chinese history, people used to prefer boys. They are better offspring," Chandrashekhar from India told the Global Times.

Powerful and important

But with more Chinese people either emigrating to foreign countries or doing business at all corners of the world, Chinese women are no longer "mysterious figures of the Orient" to foreigners.

Anastasiia Mikhailova from Russia and Laura Iagulli from Italy said that they had met Chinese women in their home country, so they already knew that Chinese women are the chiefs of their family.

"I used to work in a Chinese restaurant in my city run by a Wenzhou family, and the women were very powerful, they were in charge of everything. That's not just one family; in all Chinese families the woman decides everything," Iagulli said.

Our third question was "What's your impression of Chinese women's social status after you first came to China?"

"There isn't gender discrimination against women in China, men and women are working together. In every profession, there is no policy like 'this is for girls, this for boys,'" Boby from Bangladesh told the Global Times. "In our country, we have discrimination in professions. I can't imagine that ladies work in a salon. Not all professions can be done by women. Here in China, it's equal, I like this."

"When I came here, I discovered that women can have very important roles in society. For example, one of my teachers owns her own company and school. I didn't expect that," Davide Carretti from Italy said.

"Living in Shanghai and sharing opinions with my Chinese friends made me think otherwise. Most, if not all, of my friends are very motivated and determined in terms of professional development, and they are very much focused on their own growth rather than waiting for their own Cinderella prince," Lee said about her change.

"I thought Asian women in general would do most of the chores, but in Shanghai it really surprised me when I heard men help out a lot. Also, in a relationship, there is a generalization that Shanghainese women are the leaders in relationships and men would do 'everything for their girlfriend/fiancée/wife' (maybe true maybe not!)," Lee added.

Photos: VCG, Zhou Xinyu and Xiang Jun/GT

Shanghai special

"They look similar to women in other countries, women here have good job opportunities and are respected. I see many well-educated female professors in Shanghai. At the same time, they don't forget their female side. It's a very good combination. In my country, there are difficulties," Silva said.

"We don't have social background and culture issues in Latin America to help develop women. There is still abuse of women inside of families. Chinese women work and they are independent and the men don't press them to follow a special way," Silva added.

"After I came here, I have some Chinese friends and they are not as sweet or all 'Hello Kitty' as I thought. They work really hard. One of my friends now is preparing for a series of exams to be a diplomat. She is very good at English and she now is studying Italian. I admire her a lot," Sroka told the Global Times.

The Global Times also asked about the workplace inequality issue, Lee's answer expressed the common concern.

"This is something I tried to figure out but I haven't heard of any inequality issues specific to China. I personally think gender inequality at the workplace exists everywhere, just it depends on the country when it comes to what degree," Lee said.

But Boby, an MBA student in Shanghai International Studies University, claimed that you couldn't make conclusions simply based on the percentage of female employees in the work force.

"In my MBA class, we can have access to the statistics of the leadership structure in different companies. It's easy to discover that the higher the level, the less women." His viewpoint was echoed by Mikhailova, who is majoring in international politics.

Almost all of the interviewees expressed that Shanghai is a special place where women enjoy unusually high social status in the workplace, family and all of society. The foreign language ability, the culture and the big environment make them confident and independent compared with women from other parts of the country. They impress foreigners as "daring, not afraid of challenges, be easier to do business with and in general, hardworking and determined."

Sroka told the Global Times that some of her Chinese friends held the viewpoint that "Shanghainese women are only friendly to foreigners and, on the contrary, they are not that nice to women from other parts of the country."

"Excluding Shanghai, I would say that the social status level of Chinese women and women in Bangladesh is the same. But as far as Shanghai is concerned, it's totally different. Shanghainese women are too powerful and bossy," Boby claimed.

Iagulli and Mikhailova responded that not only women from Shanghai, but also from other parts in China, like Wenzhou of East China's Zhejiang Province, have the same social status. Shanghai isn't that unique.

"I heard it might be due to the one-child policy, where the government promoted the importance of girls and that they're equally valuable, so parents don't keep having babies until they get a son," Lee replied to the Global Times when asked what made Chinese women enjoy equal social status.

While Iagulli, Carretti, Silva and Sroke thought Chinese women enjoy at least the same social status as women in developed countries, Mikhailova expressed that "Compared with women in Europe, women in Russia and China enjoy less freedom and face more social pressure. For example, the pressure on leftover women is bigger."

The last question to our interviewees is what they feel are the characteristics of women worldwide with high social status? The keywords "well educated, motivated, determined, liberal, confident and independent," popped up.