Ananya Mittal, World
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China’s Amendment to Women’s Rights Law: A Feat or a Failure?

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Km Wilhelm

Discrimination against women in the workplace has been gaining increasing attention, eventually leading to the Chinese government passing an amendment to the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law. Whether this amendment will have any success or not remains to be seen, however.

By Ananya Mittal

Gender disparity in China has always been subject to intense discussions, with issues like low representation of women in leadership positions, as well as discrimination in job offerings and salaries, attracting attention both domestically and internationally. With regards to employment, instead of the common upward trend of female labor participation in other nations where women’s labor participation has progressed, only 60.5% of Chinese women actively partook in job-hunting in 2019 as compared to 73.2% in 1990. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch found that 11% of postings in the national civil service sector specified a preference or requirement for men. This has contributed to popular sentiment regarding the elimination of gender discrimination in China, which, along with President Xi’s commitment to women’s empowerment, eventually stimulated the passing of an amendment to the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law on Oct. 30.

So, what does this legislative amendment entail? 

The amendment adds close to 30 new provisions that address several aspects of gender equality. This article will focus on the economic implications of the amendment, particularly in how it aims to target gender bias, sexual harassment and women’s safety in the workplace. Key points include:

  1. Prohibiting the investigation of the marital and/or maternal situations of female job candidates, as well as any requirements for them to be unmarried and childless.
  2. Restricting employers from restricting job offerings to men or stating higher preferences for male applicants, and from promoting discrimination in the hiring process in any way
  3. Assigning employers the legal obligations and responsibilities to establish anti-harassment codes and regulations, with established guidelines regarding the proper complaint channels and resolution procedures
  4. Encouraging employers to assist victims of sexual harassment in receiving appropriate compensation and psychological resources
  5. Forbidding fetal sex identification for non-medical reasons and pregnancy termination on grounds of gender 
  6. Involving employers in the reporting of suspected trafficking of women to the police

Will this amendment actually help women in China?

Though the provisions stated in this amendment seem comprehensive, the big question remains: how effective will they be in reducing gender discrimination in China?

Improving gender equality, in whatever measure, will have a positive impact on Chinese women as well as the economy as a whole. One such benefit will be the generation of additional jobs for both women and men. For example, it is expected that 10.5 million additional jobs would be generated by 2050 in the EU upon ameliorating gender parity, and while such numbers are not applicable to China, it can be expected that the country will experience a similar effect. Economic theory suggests that this additional employment, as well as anti-discriminatory policies in the workspace, will help alleviate the risk of poverty or social exclusion for women and contribute to the increasing shift of women participating in secondary and tertiary sectors. When considering the economy as a whole, higher employment of women will result in higher employment overall and increase the output of the Chinese economy. In fact, estimates suggest that working towards greater gender parity could increase China’s GDP by $2.5 trillion by 2025. While it remains to be seen whether such numbers can realistically be obtained, the amendment is projected to bring at least a net positive effect on the socioeconomic status of women and the Chinese economy.

In drafting this amendment, the National People’s Congress of China noted that it took into consideration suggestions by tens of thousands of citizens, allowing it to be a more democratic and representative document. However, with China’s Politburo – the executive policy-making body– consisting of all-male membership, it raises eyebrows as to how these legislative changes will improve China’s deep-rooted patriarchal system. Zhou Yunyun, a political sociologist at the University of Oslo, echoes this statement, remarking that, “Even though the new amendments have specified more concrete details to hold people accountable for protecting women’s interests, and included new aspects of gender inequalities to address, many of its articles still lack regulatory power and serve more as idealized principles and goals to aim for.”

Furthermore, the amendment does not address prejudices around the societal role of Chinese women. The opening chapter of the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law states that “Women should respect and obey national laws, respect social morals, professional ethics and family values.” This expectation is also visible in the hiring scene, with some professions, such as the military and higher-paying sectors like the sciences, being too “challenging” for women to enter, or discriminatory job postings listing overtime and heavy workload as reasons for excluding women. Other barriers, namely the shortage of childcare and eldercare resources in a society where women bear disproportionate responsibility for domestic care, further stand in the way of the gradual elimination of gender disparity. With none of this being taken into consideration, it calls into question whether women will truly be able to achieve economic equality that the government promises.

Aside from the amendment itself, its implementation has not been appropriately addressed either. While the new legislation stipulates that employers will face criminal litigation if they do not take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and other discriminatory issues, past precedent makes it dubious whether employers will uphold the law. In fact, under the old law, there had not been any record of any employer receiving a penalty for non-compliance in the past three years. Even in cases where legal action can be taken, the punishment is either unclear or too lenient, and the only civil remedies that plaintiffs can obtain are compensation for emotional damages and apologies. For example, in some recent gender disparity lawsuits based on the original law, the plaintiffs received financial compensation of only $315. Hence, there is not enough incentive to deter gender discrimination, thereby impairing the effectiveness of the amendment.

The new provisions are a step in the right direction, reflecting the changing sentiment regarding gender equality in China and ensuring that women have legal regulations to rely on to protect their rights and interests. However, that is all this amendment is – a singular step. Without addressing the deeply entrenched patriarchal values or implementing stricter enforcement measures, the amendment will not bring any significant change to alleviate gender disparity issues in the country. Hence, increased employment and GDP in China will only be achieved if these stipulations are supplemented by further regulatory action in the near future. Only once this is tackled will China be able to progress on the path to promoting women’s empowerment and achieving complete gender equality.

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