Diversity Asia

Equality in China Through the Lens of Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a topic with strong relevance in China. The country has become a powerful global economic force, but women and people of ethnicities continue a struggle for equality, especially outside urban areas.
By Jill Motley

Western companies continue to increase their presence in China as the country continues to grow as a global economic force. One of the challenges businesses must overcome is the unequal status of women and ethnic groups in many areas of the country, leading to increasing discussion on the impact of intersectionality in China.

Gender, ethnicity and religion are the cornerstones of intersectionality in China. Many groups remain marginalized socially and economically, and there is growing awareness that intersectionality plays an important role in the workforce.

Spurring Economic Power by Recognizing Intersectionality
In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw, an American professor, developed the theory of "intersectionality." It was originally developed to challenge the path of gender equality discussions driven by mostly middle-class white women.

Intersectionality forces people to think of a person's experience in broader ways than just gender. Women have a diversity consisting of gender, race, sexuality, age, disability, ethnicity and social class. Today, there is a growing body of research applying the theory of intersectionality in countries that are not democracies to better understand how a country like China can increase its economic power and speed of progress by addressing the diversity of experiences of marginalized groups.

China has officially recognized 56 ethnic groups, recognizes five major religions and, according to the United Nations, has 83 million people with disabilities.

Though the government no longer recognizes social class officially, there is a typical stratification found in developed and developing countries alike. Social class is based on factors like marginalization, upward mobility, and power holders, to name a few.

China's population is 48.47 percent female, per the World Bank. With these kinds of statistics, considering women from the single aspect of gender, while striving to understand the barriers they face in the economy, oversimplifies the picture and leaves major information gaps.

Diversity of Realities
Chinese women and intersectionality are applicable to China in many ways, and it remains a story still being written.

In 2008, Author Lanyan Chen critiques China's key reform policies and their adverse impacts on women in China in her book, "Gender and Chinese Development: Towards an Equitable Society." Lanyan addresses the fact that insufficient social support has held women back from participating in the economy on an equal basis.

In 2012, Isabel Attané wrote the article, "Being a Woman in China Today: A demography of gender." In it, she concluded that discrimination based on gender in China is linked to demographic discrimination based on gender at the micro level, creating a diversity of realities the women experience and a permanent minority group. In the article, the author notes the Chinese government recognized that "deep-seated inequalities continue to exist between regions regarding the status of women."

International companies will find that women in China lag behind in education, employment, compensation and social status. Intersectionality becomes a term that embraces all of the aspects of women. Since most Chinese are of the Asian race, ethnicity and gender are leading aspects of the bias shown toward women. This is important to know if interested in doing business in China.

Gender and intersectionality also alludes to different aspects between urban and rural women with the common bond of a belief among many businessmen that the primary duty of women is taking care of the family and household. Overall, Chinese women make 22 percent less than men in monthly income, and 11.5 percent believed this reduced promotion opportunities. Women continue to account for 70 percent of the agricultural workforce per the State Council People's Republic of China.

Discrimination is strong against rural women, ethnic minority women, women with disabilities, and migrant rural women. Gender inequality is one of the factors driving the income gap.

Gender Discrimination has Deep Roots
Despite economic progress, China is still largely a patriarchal society. Younger women are changing some of the cultural mores, so age is an intersectionality factor. So are economic class, education level, ethnicity, marital status, and pregnancy or potential for getting pregnant

Though progress has been made in reducing gender inequality at some levels, like employment in urban areas, there is concern that economic development is leading to the rise of gender discrimination. A recent article published in the "South China Morning Post" discusses the increasing appearance of job postings asking for "pretty females" and women with "fine features" and "female beauty that exceeds nature itself."

The statistics seem to confirm that women in China are benefitting less than men from the country's economic development. The World Economic Forum dropped China's parity ranking to 100 in 2017. It was 57 in 2008. Gender discrimination has deep roots in the culture, with Confucianism claiming women are inferior to men. Chairman Mao believed women are equal partners in life.

When doing business in China, businesses will find there are laws on the books that protect women's rights. However, enforcement is inconsistent.

International companies have opportunities to employ gender equality policies and practices. It requires a fine balance because foreign companies cannot assume they are able to apply Western societal and cultural norms across the board. Traditions are ingrained in society and the workplace, and patriarchy has ruled.

However, there is a growing number of businesses owned by Chinese women, offering international companies a source of diverse suppliers. The women provide leadership role models and give a voice to gender inequality. They hire other women and do business with companies employing mostly men. It is not easy. Things are improving for women, but very slowly. The #MeToo movement in addressing workplace harassment is almost non-existent in China because of censorship on the Web.

Understanding the issues like intersectionality is important to developing a business with a core value of equality. It is a complex issue in any country, but even more so in China because of its diversity, ingrained biases, traditions, and government policies and actions. Things have been moving in the right direction over the last decade, and hopefully there will be no backsliding, only forward movement.