China / Society

Women's place is no longer only at home

By Dong Fangyu (China Daily) Updated: 2013-01-17 23:43

The rumored relationship between film star Zhang Ziyi and popular TV anchor Sa Beining has become a hot topic, and many netizens have expressed "concern" over it because the annual income of Zhang is about 790 million yuan ($127 million), almost 77 times that of Sa.

Irrespective of whether Zhang and Sa have fallen in love, the netizens' "concern" reflects the traditional Chinese thinking that men should earn more than their wives (or partners).

But in developed countries a growing number of women contribute more to family income than men. This trend is changing women's traditional role of being "helpless housewives" and challenging the perceived image of men as the "breadwinners".

Liza Mundy, author of The Richer Sex, wrote in the March 2012 cover story of Time that in the United States, nearly 4 out of every 10 working women earned more than their partners in 2009, an increase of more than 50 percent from 20 years ago.

While it's hard to estimate how many Chinese women earn more than their partners, they indeed are contributing an increasing share of household income. In the 1950s, women in China contributed 20 percent of household income, and the figure rose to about 40 percent by the 1990s, and 50 percent in 2009, according to BBC. Generally speaking, women in China still have fewer job opportunities, promotion chances and paid less than men, but that doesn't necessarily mean men should earn more than their wives.

According to a survey conducted by the women's federation and the National Bureau of Statistics in 2010, among people with higher education the number of women was 7.1 percent more then men. Gary S. Becker, the economics Nobel Prize winner, has said women's income may surpass that of men if the percentage of women opting for higher education continues.

In China, however, the traditional social pattern of marriage prevails. People still expect women to marry men who are older, taller and richer. But when some women begin to outperform their husbands or partners in income, people shouldn't use their traditional beliefs to judge their relationship.

The traditional family roles assigned to men and women make it difficult for many career women to fulfill their true potential. They are caught in a dilemma and find it difficult to choose between economic independence and their assigned traditional role of being inferior to the men. It is because of this dilemma that, on one hand, they aspire for higher income and, on the other, cannot come to terms with fact that they earn more than their partners.

The 2012-13 Annual Report on Social Mentality in China, published by the Social Sciences Academic Press, says that less than 1 percent of the male respondents to a survey in 2010 said that they hoped their future spouses would earn more than them, and only 25.7 percent said they would love to find a wife who earned as much as them. It seems a career women brings home not only the bacon, but also the tension.

A 25-year study carried out by Jay Teachman, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, shows that up to 40 percent women who are lead breadwinners of the family are likely to get divorced. Some Chinese scholars suggest that the proportion of 2:1 or 1.5:1 income between a man and woman is perhaps best suited to a stable marriage.

But wouldn't family life be happier if the wife earned success and money in her career while her man excelled in household chores and logistics?

Pride and ego prevent men from taking up tasks, such as household chores and childrearing, which women are supposed to be good at. Men are generally associated with career, money and authority, and being the breadwinners of the family. As a result, conflicts arise when a woman starts earning more than her man.

We have to change our ideas about gender roles in the division of family labor. For example, a man's usefulness can be manifested not only in his authority, ambitious goals and heroic actions, but also in his being a good cook, a loving husband and a caring father.

In fact, "house husbands" are not uncommon in big Chinese cities. The Institute of Youth and Juvenile Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, surveyed 724 households with children under 18 years of age. About 16 percent of these households, had a stay-at-home parent, of which 40 percent were full-time household dads. Instead of deriding such men, we should laud them for doing a job that brings out the best in them.

By and large, a happy marriage or relationship is measured by the balance between "market production" and "domestic produciton", plus a combination of each individual's needs and charisma. And though social acceptance for changing gender roles will take time, the traditional husband-wife relationship has started to change.

The author is a reporter with China Daily. E-mail:

Hot Topics