Hitting The Glass Ceiling: Women and Politics in China

Countries all throughout the world struggle with providing equal opportunities and positions in regards to women when compared to their male counterparts.

Countries all throughout the world struggle with providing equal opportunities and positions in regards to women when compared to their male counterparts (Brennan & Elkink, 2015). The People’s Republic of China is not an exception to this trend. In order to combat gender inequality in politics, a quota for women cadres was introduced in 1995. This would ensure that at least one woman holds a head or deputy position in regional governments (Jiang et al, 2023). Despite this quota, women in China still struggle to participate in politics. This statement will be supported by these following arguments; (1) The society and culture in China view women as subordinate, thus lacking support and belief in women when in leadership and political positions, (2) The few women that do end up in positions in government struggle to receive prestigious promotions compared to their male counterparts; and finally (3) In order to attain these promotions these women need to outperform and display similar characteristics to their male colleagues in order to attain similar positions. This issue is important to understand in order to see whether mere gender quotas are sufficient in solving gender inequality in politics or are there other factors we as a society must willingly work to fix.

Women in China face many cultural and societal oppressions in society that bar them from pursuing their goals outside of traditional gender norms. The cultural tradition and society in China is shaped by Confucian values. Confucianism created a hierarchy based on gender and age, and puts women at a lower degree compared to men (Sun & Li, 2017). In the philosophy, women are regarded in a position of servitude to men, whether as a daughter, wife, or mother (Rosenlee & Li-Hsiang, 2023). Due to this, women’s place in society was limited to “serving her husband and her parents-in-law” as well as the maintenance of domestic aspects which includes the household and childcare (Attane, 2013). These cultural norms still restrict the behavior of women in

China to this day, as the proverb “a woman without talents/literacy is virtuous” is often directed at women in order to hinder them from pursuing careers and higher education (Sun & Li, 2017). Sun and Li continue to state that due to these social norms, women are seen to have “no right to pursue their interests”, own capital, and do not have the capacity to make decisions. Furthermore they continue to outline that due to these stereotypes in society, when women do have careers, men do not acknowledge them as supervisors despite their higher position. On top of that, they are discouraged from pursuing any type of promotions in their career (Sun, 2014). Knowing this cultural background, it can be assumed that women refrain from pursuing a career outside of home life. Additionally, those that do will face harmful stereotypes and belittling, which could make their pursuit of a career, position, or education much harder than the men in the society. A gender quota in government will not solve the problem of these women being seen as subordinate or below men.

Secondly, when few women do find the ability to attain certain positions, particularly in politics, their struggles do not end there as a path to promotion is not often easy. Current concrete measures ensuring equal representation and status for women in government in China are still not sufficient (Chen, 2023). Chairman Mao had stated that “women hold up half the sky” but let us see whether “half” really is true. The fact is, women only make up 26.54% of congress in China (Chen, 2023). Additionally, no woman has ever held a position in the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP, which is regarded as one of the most prestigious positions in Chinese politics (Sun & Li, 2017). On top of that, a study conducted by Jiang et al. (2023), points out that there has been a severe imbalance of numbers in the amount of women and men that have served as mayors and party secretariats (PS) from 2003 – 2020 in China. Out of the 1,987 mayors only 135 were women (6.8%) and out of the 1,694 party secretaries only 88 (5.2%). Second, the study aimed to analyze whether women experience the same career paths and promotion opportunities compared to men. The study found that men and women’s career paths do in fact differ. It states that women’s career paths develop faster due to a discriminate retirement age that cuts their careers shorter by five years. Women mayors’ careers are vertically and horizontally less mobile than men, meaning that they are less likely to be promoted into prestigious positions.

Surprisingly however, the study shows that in the party secretariat, women and men seem to have equal opportunities of promotion. However, this does not necessarily mean that women and men in the PS are regarded as equal. This point will be elaborated further in the next arguments. This illustration demonstrates how little representation there is for women in Chinese politics and in turn policy and decision making, the numbers also dwindle the higher up they go in the political ladder.

Lastly, in order for women to be seen as equal to men they are forced to outperform them. In addition to that, women are also expected to convey positive leadership traits that often have masculine association. Referring to the aforementioned study conducted by Jiang et al. (2023), the data showed that more women who were accepted in these political positions have a higher education compared to their male colleagues. It is stated that for the PS position, 87.76% of women have a master’s and doctoral degree compared to 81.85% of men as well as 87.69% and 86.11% for the mayor position respectively. Additionally, no woman was accepted to both positions with only a highschool diploma, compared to the presence of some in men. Aside from education, women also need to outperform men in conveying “masculine” traits instead of “feminine” ones as the latter trait is seen as inferior. One of the reasons women find it difficult to participate in politics is due to the fact that they feel the need to “prove their masculine capacity” (Tickner, 2001). Jiang et al. (2023) also seeked to analyze whether women in politics in China are assigned more feminine positions in politics, positions that they point out to be considered less prestigious and leave little room for the chances of promotion compared to positions in issue areas considered more masculine. Their findings support this thesis, showing that more women are positioned in issue areas attributed to the feminine gender role. The problem lies when the study shows the fact that the majority of women in mayoral and PS positions have a more “masculine” type career path, previously operating in these masculine type issue areas. This suggests that these issue areas and positions with a male dominance, provide a better springboard for promotions compared to female majority ones. It is also important to note that the women in these positions are often ethnic minorities, presumed in the study to be because the system seeks to fill in as many minority quotas as possible with a single person.

Knowing this, we can then assume that for Chinese women to attain high political positions not only do they have to be highly educated (a feat minorities have difficulty in reaching), but also prevail in a male dominated field that might think less of their “femininity”.

One might argue that the fact that China adopted a quota for women in the first place means that it shows intentions in closing the gap and that perhaps the government does not purposely exclude and discriminate against women. However, literature by Brennan and Elkink (2015), suggests that male dominated systems do not necessarily do this in favor of the women but rather for themselves. This includes increasing chances of re-election by running against a woman in a society that distrusts the ability of them, or to be perceived by the public as caring for minorities rights and issues in order to increase the chance of re-election despite not actually planning to implement them.

To conclude, women in China still face difficulties in being treated equally in politics (despite a gender quota) due to misogynistic societal and cultural perceptions, lack of representation in numbers and difficulty in attaining promotions for higher positions, as well as the need to outperform male colleagues despite their odds. Additionally, women need to project themselves with traits attributed to masculinity in order to be seen as competent. China needs to explore alternative and concrete solutions in ensuring true gender equality, especially in politics. It is felt that representation of women in policy making is highly crucial in order to prevent harmful laws as well as laws that perpetuate harmful stereotypes in the society. Reflecting on the study Jiang et al. (2023), the women in the data could be regarded as somewhat privileged due to their high education. This leads to the conclusion that if these women struggle to excel in politics in China, that implies that it will be harder for other women with less opportunities to participate. Something we as a society should strive to change, not just in China but around the world.

Quintafila Salihin
Quintafila Salihin
International Relations undergraduate student at Universitas Gadjah Mada. My passion lies in discussing the matters of gender equality, democracy studies, human rights, and the environment. I hope that during my studies and research, I could have and share a deeper understanding of these crucial topics.