Notes from Chinese Female Executives in the Private Sector: Rethinking the Third-Child Policy
Women have continuously been on the losing end of China’s population control laws. The one-child policy led to an imbalanced gender population with heavy favoritism for male children, pushing girls to battle social expectations from birth. Speaking with some of China’s most professionally accomplished women in leading industries today, the then girls of the one-child policy, we learned that the new third-child policy also disproportionately affects women by discouraging them from achieving their full career potential. So is there a way for women to win in the Chinese economy?
Over the course of 6 months, we interviewed 41 senior female executives with over 10 years of experience about the way they see gender relations in the labor market. We were curious to learn which they perceive are the key factors that seem to indicate if and to what extent women feel this gender disparity in China. They identified two factors that negatively influence their work-life balance: the seniority of the role and the government’s third child policy. Seniority is associated with more work and less clear lines between work and life, either through the increase in working hours, or the amount of time spent away from home due to business trips. Our interviewees almost unanimously identified pregnancy and maternal leave as affecting the opportunities for promotion and being disruptive for their careers. Particularly, the third child policy was named as putting more pressure on women, regardless of industry.
Matilda Ho is the founder and managing director of a Shanghai-based agrifood tech venture capital firm and the founder of an online farmers market. She describes herself as “40 years old, not married, and without children by choice”. She says she is lucky that her family did not pressure her to settle down because she believes that if she had a family, she would not have had the bandwidth to found and grow two businesses. But Matilda is not the only one feeling that women are pushed towards a choice between prioritizing family or career. Carol Ding is the head of a leading music company’s commercial and digital strategy, also 40 years old, married, with no kids by choice. Given her professional aspirations, she thinks “having a family or being a mother is very hard”.
Today, we witness more and more professional success stories of females in China, such as those of Matilda and Carol. The women in China are at an all-time highly educated, healthy, and active in the economy and society. While there is a smaller female labor force overall, in China, the unemployment rate for female workers is lower than that of males. Moreover, the unemployment rate is lower compared to other Asia-Pacific countries. Additionally, the emergence of women entrepreneurs is a notable feature of the Chinese modern economy. In regards to involvement in business start-up activities, males and females are quite close. However, while women are becoming better integrated into the Chinese economy, there has been an alarming decline in China’s national fertility rate, from 5.8 in the 1970s to an all-time low of 1.2 children per woman today, creating government urgency for policy reform. China is at risk of a growing aging population, which could lead to people’s economic dependence on government resources as they transition into retirement and the shrinking of the workforce driving the economy.
The prospect of an old China with a large demographic of skilled, childless workers poses an imminent threat to the country’s continued economic rise. As such, the government has reversed course on Mao-era population control mechanisms, introducing a “three-child policy” last year, encouraging women to have more children through a series of government benefits that reduces the financial burdens of raising an additional child. But should this economic push through population expanding policies come at the cost of limiting the professional growth of women? Today, women’s needs to simultaneously be successful mothers and business leaders are unmet in Chinese society.
We derived this finding as we wrote a paper on challenges senior female leaders face in China and conducted 30 interviews about career growth and representation, networking cultures, gendered expectations, work-life balance, and more. Our interviewees were women who had lived in China for the majority of their careers. They occupy high-level positions in China across several industries and sectors. These women represent a broad scope regarding their family structure, support systems, educational background, and international exposure. Our interviews uncovered that they see the Three-Child policy as clashing with the realities of the private sector’s fierce competition and societal expectations over motherhood practices.
Our interviewees offered several perspectives on why there is a clash between motherhood and career progression. Among them, the sentiment was that pregnancy and maternal leave affect the opportunities for promotion and are disruptive to their careers. They also noted that the increasing incentives from the government are primarily targeting women as paternal leave is not customary in Chinese companies.
One of our interviewees is Daisy Qiu, the founder of ShePower. She shared that “having three children and full-time work creates difficulties”. Moreover, “In terms of policies in China, maternity leave for women is available. However, when women take more leave, it allows their male counterparts to grow professionally. I believe that more days should also be given to men to get them more involved in the child caring process and allow more time for women to be up to date with their work. Male parental leave is less than ten days; it is not even a third of female leave. Some companies are slowly picking up policies to address this and giving more days for male parental leave but not very often.” Daisy’s story speaks to the disproportionate career impact child-baring has on women compared to their partners, who rarely or ever put their career on pause for the child. Government policies are not only enabling but encouraging this.
In another interview Zoe Zhao, a team leader in a manufacturing company, shared her story of working for a State Owned Enterprise (SOE). She took a one-year maternity leave for her first child with a 30% salary discount. However, once she moved to a private sector job and had a second child, she only received three to four months paid by social security, the minimum in China. “There is also mandated breastfeeding leave; women can leave an hour early from work or just take days off, but that discounts the salary.” Zoe’s experience is evidence of how the public and private sectors operate differently and how the crafting of new policies needs to better understand and target the private sector to ensure mothers are fairly compensated in terms of time off, supporting initiatives, and financially.
Moreover, Li Zhang, a product manager in a technology company in Shanghai, speaks on societal pressures, and she says that “there is a pressure to have kids now more and more. All the Chinese reality shows are about being hot, hot moms, hot girls — kind of like living in the construct of the 1940s or 1960s in the United States (US). But looking forward, countries like Japan have done a lot to get women back to work after they tried to incentivize having more kids. But, the Chinese government is so pragmatic now, I don’t know if they’ll ever get there”. One barrier she identifies is China not having NGOs. Many of these problems exist in the US (and some are even worse than in China), but the difference she sees is that more dialogue, empathy, and conversation exist. “Instead, in China, there is just shame (…) there is no perception of hope at all”. From Zhang and other interviewees, we learn that for the third-child policy to be implemented successfully, it also needs to be paired with initiatives around addressing societal norms and the pressures women are under.
Furthermore, Vivian Xiao, an HR executive for an entertainment company, also speaks on societal pressures. She says that “family responsibilities are always harder for women. Males have the ‘title’ of a father but don’t have much on the job description. In contrast, every step is hard for women. Should I have a second child? When? How does it affect my career? And when you do it, it can put you years behind in your career.” “I think China is quite good, as female participation in the workforce is among the highest globally. But, there is a stereotype that a woman should be good in every aspect: good female executive, good mother, daughter, etc. Women around me with children are struggling.”
Another interviewee, Ding Xiao, a Managing Director of a major financial services company in Beijing, says that “for women, marriage and children are not considered in the internal promotion process. But a candidate’s marital and family status will be an important consideration in the campus recruiting and experienced hire.”
Efforts to increase the birthrate, however, only continue to reify and strengthen social narratives pushing women into maintaining the reproductive duties of traditional gender roles. These duties not only clash with women’s agency and their ability to engage in professional careers but especially clash when presented with the expectation of more and more children per mother. This all aligns with problematic dimensions of the gendered protections that do exist.
China is not enforcing legislation that protects women from being discriminated against based on marital status or perceived pregnancy potential. Not only does the recent Three-Child Policy put pressure on women who would rather focus solely on their career, but also the Three-Child Policy benefits (such as lengthened maternity leave) also incentive employers to discriminate based on the risk of having to provide these benefits even more. In other words, legislation and business norms have wedded together in a circular, closed loop of repeated mal-incentivization.
Consequently, the Three-Child Policy must be rethought and matched with policies aimed at changing societal expectations about women’s role in childcare, formal and informal encouragements of equal paternal care and paternal work leave, and strict enforcement of gendered discriminatory practices in hiring and progression in the workplace.
About the Authors
Cristina Pogorevici — was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania. She holds a BS in Economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University (Schwarzman Scholar). While in China, she conducted research on the challenges of senior female leaders and worked part-time on multilateral development projects for the EU-China Partnership Office in Beijing. In September she joined Bain & Company as an Associate Consultant in the London office.
Matea Kocevska— was born and raised in Skopje, North Macedonia. She holds a BS in Economics and Finance from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and a master’s degree in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University (Schwarzman Scholar). Before starting the Schwarzman Scholars program, she worked as a researcher at NYU in the field of business strategy. In September, she joined McKinsey & Company as a Senior Business Analyst in the Adriatic office.
Joshua Kemp — was born and raised across the United States and Europe as the child of U.S. military personnel. They hold a BA in International Studies from City College (CUNY) and an MSc in Gender (Sexuality) from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In between their BA and MSc, they worked for 3 years as the People Operations Director of a fast-growing startup in Shanghai. Within this role, they spent extensive time working on diversity and inclusion within talent recruitment and management. In September, they joined McKinsey & Company as a Professional Development Specialist in the London office.
Special thanks to Dwight Ma and Roda Kesete who worked with the authors on the research paper that inspired this article.