China’s Three-Child Policy Puts More Pressure on Working Women

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China’s three-child policy is putting more pressure on working women and increasing gender discrimination. It’s a problem policymakers will need to grapple with now that China’s government began dismantling the one-child policy to allow couples to have three children as part of an increasingly desperate effort to reverse falling birthrates. “The three-child policy will certainly be a huge blow to working women,” says Liu Minghui, a law professor at China Women’s University and a public-interest lawyer who’s representing Liu Tao (the women are not related). “Companies already don’t want female workers under the two-child policy—now they are going to discriminate even more.”

China can’t afford to have women dropping out of a workforce that’s already shrinking as its population ages rapidly. The country has one of the highest labor force participation rates for women in all of Asia, at 61%, but that number has been trending down since the 1990s. Raising the rate by 3 percentage points would deliver a $497 billion boost to the economy, equivalent to 2% of gross domestic product, according to a 2019 study by PwC.

Economists who analyzed data from a single large city found the gender pay gap for new hires has widened more than 20% since 2013, when the government began allowing some families to have two children. And the ratio of female to male workers has dropped the most among major economies in the past four years, according to data compiled by the World Bank.

A former human resources manager at a Beijing-based internet company says she witnessed the environment for women deteriorate during her five-year stint there. Managers commonly sidelined female employees after they got pregnant, and they pressured one to resign by dispatching her on frequent business trips, says the woman, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “We became less willing to hire female workers after 2016,” she says, referring to the year the one-child policy officially ended. “For positions that required long hours, I didn’t even bother to open the résumés I received from female candidates.”

One of the biggest reasons behind the growing discrimination is employers’ reluctance to pay for maternity leave, according to corporate recruiters. By law, women in China are entitled to at least 98 days of leave with full pay, but the benefit is only partially funded by the state. Also, women are seen as less likely to commit to long working hours after they have children because they lack access to child care. Plus, they shoulder a bigger share of domestic duties, spending an average of 126 minutes on housework a day, compared with 45 minutes for men, a national survey in 2018 showed.

China’s tech industry, the source of many of the country’s most coveted jobs, has become a notoriously unfriendly place for working mothers. “The growing push among the tech companies, most famously, to force workers to work excessively long hours is another trend that disproportionately affects women, because it’s still the women who are expected to do all the housework,” says Geoffrey Crothall, communications director at advocacy group China Labour Bulletin.

When a marketing director at an internet startup in Beijing told her bosses she was pregnant in 2017, they congratulated her. Then, she says, they began sending her on business trips with increased frequency. After some months they demoted her and hired another person to fill her position. When she had to take sick leave because of complications with her pregnancy, the company refused to pay her salary and removed her from the email system, leaving her little choice but to quit, she says.

Four years on, Liu Tao is still deep in a legal battle with her former employer. That name is a pseudonym she uses to speak about her case, to avoid losing out on future job opportunities or being bullied online, which has happened to other Chinese women who’ve sued their employers for gender discrimination.

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