Gender equality is a universal issue. In the United States, debates over the meaning of feminism and women’s reproductive rights pervade social media. Women have taken control of the conversation and are progressively changing the situation. In China, however, sexism still pervades in many aspects of life. I had expected this culture to some extent before I even came to Beijing, so I had not planned to write a commentary on the topic. After living in China’s capital for two months, however, I have begun to realize just how big a problem gender discrimination really is. I first began seriously considering this issue when our program director proclaimed in class one day that China will never have a female president. She seemed so firm in her belief, although dismayed at the reality of it. I knew China had its inequality issues just like every other country, but I had not realized the extent to which women face discrimination.
According to the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index, China is ranked 91 out of 187 countries. Coming from the United States, which is ranked fifth, I can see the difference. From little occurrences to blatant sexism, my female classmates and I have experienced many instances of discrimination based on our gender. Some of the more subtle indications of this inequality show up in everyday life, such as when the waiter hands the tongs for the hotpot to our male friend despite a female classmate being closer and already reaching out to receive the tongs.
Sometimes our identities are completely disregarded, like when trying to get a cab back to campus after a night out. Cab drivers can be supremely creepy, saying things like “I’ll only take you all if a 美女 (pretty girl) sits in the front,” or “I’ll take one of you for free.” As foreigners especially, we are regularly sexualized and treated like things to possess rather than respected as people. Our foreigner status becomes an even bigger problem outside of Beijing. While visiting Xi’an, a city less frequented by foreigners, we were gawked at everywhere we went, and I am pretty sure security at a nightclub thought we were prostitutes and that our male classmate was our pimp. Although there were few instances where I have felt genuinely unsafe, this brief view of discrimination in China is quite disheartening.
Mao’s China established legal equality for women, promoting gender equality through sayings like “women hold up half the sky.” But the traditional patriarchal structure of Confucianism still has a large influence on modern society. The abandonment of baby girls in response to the One Child Policy provides a shocking example of the traditional attitude that boys are superior to girls. The recent rise of the concept of “leftover women,” unmarried women over the age of 27, perpetuates the traditional attitude that a woman’s worth is based on her role as a wife and mother. China’s system of government also creates barriers for women to gain powerful positions in the government.
I followed up with our program director to find out why she so strongly believed China would never have a female president. Her answer was twofold. The first related to systematic difficulties for women to gain positions of political power. Electing the president is an internal decision made by upper leadership in the party. Because most, if not all, of these politicians are male, given the institutionalized sexism in China, it is unlikely that they would choose a female to lead. The second part of her answer reflected the cultural stigma that women inherently lack leadership ability. Although she admits that the status of women has greatly improved in the past 50 years, women’s involvement in leadership roles is still limited. Even after obtaining such a position, a woman’s abilities are still doubted, and they have difficulty gaining support by colleagues. My director told me that companies do not even try to hide this discrimination; frequently job postings will blatantly convey the message “Women need not apply.”
Lacking of freedom of expression and a political voice, women in China do not really have a platform on which to protest this discrimination. In democratic nations, women can advocate for change, but in China, there is no one to represent their interests. When asked about the prospect of change, my program director responded that finding a way to enact change to gender inequality will prove to be a challenge.