By Ngan Ho
“I get ridiculed by male customers all the time,” says Fan Baolian, 28, a restaurant manager at the Songlei Business Hotel & Spa in Beijing. “They say dirty words to me like why am I working here when I’m a woman and should be at home taking care of my kid and husband.”
Why would an intelligent, independently minded woman put up with such behavior? Fan says it’s the money. Her monthly salary of 10,000–20,000 RMB ($1,543–$3,087) is more than four times what the average person makes in Beijing. This confers on her a higher status in China’s competitive pecking order.
Despite the constant verbal abuse from patrons, Fan says she doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon because she wants to use her status to help her younger coworkers, particularly the females.
“I’m like a mother to them. I shadow them and look after them,” Fan says. “I have the ability to make life easier for the peasant girls applying to work here from the countryside.”
Despite new career opportunities that China’s breakneck economic growth has churned up for both women and men in recent years, women too often find it more difficult to improve their social status in the work place.
Ying Li, executive director of the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center, which provides free legal services to women, says Chinese women face discrimination in the work place throughout their careers.
“You’ve heard [about] a lot of legislation that’s been promoted by the NGOs and fought for against male dominance within the family,” Ying says. “But in reality, women’s role in society is still comparably low to men.”
Following China’s revolution in 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party stressed gender equality and equal pay for both sexes. The view, at least in theory, was that men and women were equally capable of performing any duty such as working in the fields as well as other manual labor–intensive jobs not centered around the home.
Women, especially those in the working class, still face low wages, sexual harassment and inequality in pursuing higher education according to the All-China Women’s Federation website.
Changes in China’s educational system have helped improve women’s social standing the most, says Lin Lixia, secretary general of the NGO Women’s Watch-China, a nonprofit organization established to protect women’s rights and interests.
“Women migrant workers are regarded as weak people and have the hardest time to find their benefits guaranteed to them,” Ying says. “But it is inevitable to say that China’s social stigma on women has [eased] a lot.”
A balance in education reform between men and women played a key role in women’s pursuit of career opportunities today, says Lin. “A lot of improvement has been made through education reform,” she says. “It was always the male who received an education, but today the male to female ratio at a university level is fifty-fifty.”
China’s contradictory culture makes progress slow to emerge as its past still grips the present.
Li Hongjuan, 24, who lives in a cramped house along the alleyways of Hebei district in Beijing, took a different approach from Fan.
“I abide by my parents wishes to marry my husband, so they could be happy,” Li says. “I thought about finding a good job and working, but my parents didn’t give me that choice. So I moved to live with my husband in the city and started a family.”
Now she is a stay at home wife focused solely on caring for her seven-month-old daughter. Though Li has not achieved as much social status in life as Fan did, both women have made sacrifices for the path they have chosen.
Fan says her 3-year-old son doesn’t even call her mom anymore and her phone never stops ringing because she’s working all the time. Li says even though she is content with not having a career, when her daughter grows up she will push her to pursue a well-paying profession before marriage.