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Gender stereotypes hamper female professionals
By Chang Tianle (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-05 09:35

After hearing about gender equality for decades, starting with Mao Zedong's famous comment that "women hold up half the sky," Chinese women are inclined to think that they are capable of achieving whatever men can achieve.

Especially educated women, who have come to enjoy more and better career opportunities than their peers in rural areas.

Yet despite the success stories of many individual women, the actual experience of far too many women, especially professional women, suggests that the promise of equality has not yet fully materialized.

Or as Yu Hai, an associate professor of sociology at Shanghai-based Fudan University, put it, women are in the most difficult time since they were granted the same social and working status as men half a century ago.

He is not talking about living standards or political rights. He is referring to the dilemma many young and educated women face today.

Many professional women find themselves caught between career and family, tradition and modernity. Or in simpler terms, the conflict between their actual ability and the social structure.

"Women still haven't fully liberated themselves from putting their roles as mothers and wives ahead of their role as career women. This results in a general lack of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, leading to an erosion of their independence," says Meng Yankun, chairwoman of the Shanghai Women's Federation.

A survey that covered over 40 scientific research institutions in Shanghai gives strong support to Meng's contention. The survey found that women scientists and researchers' commitment to their careers is undermined by family expectations and old-fashioned attitudes towards gender.

Among 17,860 people employed by research institutions in Shanghai, 32.7 per cent are women. However, only 15 per cent of them have senior titles. And only 42 out of 428 women scientists and researchers surveyed have their own research projects.

The survey also finds that 82.9 per cent of them had not been promoted in the previous five years. For those lucky enough to get a promotion, most have had only one.

Although there are a dozen renowned women scientists, such as astronomer Ye Shuhua and geneticist Chen Saijuan, the survey indicates that many female researchers in Shanghai choose to spend more time in taking care of their families, rather than focusing on their careers.

Women researchers' dilemma

Hou Guofang, a government official, talked to many women during the survey and found out that the achievements of many women fall far short of their actual potential.

She notes that many women researchers' husbands are also scientists. But 20 to 30 per cent of the women researchers do most of the housework at home.

"They tend to shoulder more domestic and parental responsibility, thus supporting their husbands' careers, instead of spending the time to develop their own careers," she says.

Xia Guomei, a researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, says: "Men and women are legally equal in China. However, it never happens in terms of effort required to bring about career success. To achieve the same degree of success in their careers, woman have to give much more of themselves than men do."

The whole society still holds the view that "men are superior to women," Xia says. Such an attitude is to be found in many areas of society.

She says even though women are entitled by the law to enjoy the same status and treatment as men, the traditional conception of women has changed little: "If a man is successful, it is normal that his wife will take care of the family. This is seen as an ideal marital arrangement. But if a women is successful, she still needs to be a good wife and mother at home if she is to be regarded as a 'good woman'."

If a successful professional woman does not assume traditional duties at home, she will probably be accused of being selfish and concentrating too much on her career and neglecting her family. Or as some would say, "She is neglecting her responsibility in the home."

"The whole society still considers the gender issue from a man's perspective," Xia points out.

Under the planned economy, work units provided facilities such as nurseries to facilitate working mothers.

However, as the market economy has gained momentum over the past two decades, such equitable practices have been falling by the wayside.

"Too much emphasis is being put on economic development, at the expense of true equality, including gender equality," Yu Hai says.

His view is shared by his colleague Fan Lizhu, also an associate professor of sociology with Fudan University. She says that as many work units terminate services such as nurseries, women have been forced to sacrifice career more and more for their families.

Lu Jianmin, director of the Women's Research Centre under the Shanghai Women's Federation, points out: "social attitudes make it easier for men to invest more time in their careers than for women."

Fan says women's careers are more likely to suffer setbacks than men's because of cultural or attitudinal prejudices.

"Relationships, marriage, pregnancy, childcare invariably impact more on women than on men," she says.

Compromise one way or another

Linda Zhang, 25, an accountant with a leading global accounting firm, recalls how frustrated and confused she was when she turned on the TV after a hard day's work to see most women being portrayed as being happy and proud to be housewives, both in the shows and the commercials.

On the other hand, she still remembers how she was told both in school and by her parents how important it was to be an independent individual and pursue advancement in one's career.

Then she couldn't help asking herself: "Where do I get the energy? How can I manage it? How can I juggle it all?"

"Then I gradually came to realize that it is almost impossible for a woman to easily have both at least at the same time a family and a career," she says.

According to Lu, for women today, a career is not just a professional or managerial job, but a parallel path to their domestic lives, "a place where they gain financial independence, recognition, respect and a separate identity."

Victims of stereotyping

For many other women professionals, the reality is not so easy.

Researcher Xia Guomei says that great efforts should be made to tackle these cultural or attitudinal barriers in order to fully achieve equality between men and women, and make it easier for women to balance family and career.

Lu says as more and more women receive higher education, they tend to become more aggressive and ambitious in their careers, which will gradually change the stereotype of women.

However, Xia worries about how men will react to women's increasing independence.

Stereotypes and cultural assumptions are not easy to change.

She says women are not the only victims of such notion, so are men.

"Men are pressured to rise up in their careers, and are looked down on if failing to gain fame or fortune."

So she calls for both men and women to challenge the stereotype.

"A properly balanced social structure between men and women will give both sexes more freedom to choose what they really want," she says.

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