An abysmal record
The question is, why does a party that is officially committed to gender equality have such an abysmal record at promoting women within its ranks?
Under Communist rule, educational opportunities for women have opened, particularly at universities. Forced marriages were banned. The one-child policy has helped erase the age-old idea that girls are not as valuable as boys. Birth control is readily available to women who want it.
The advances have been huge when compared with the pre-Communist era, when Chinese women were generally subjugated to men, marriages were arranged between families, some women were forced to become concubines, females could not inherit land and a woman’s sole job was to produce male heirs. The Communists also were able to stamp out the practice of binding women’s feet.
But the progress still weighs against some deeply entrenched traditions and a paternalistic culture.
Advertisements seeking employees can list “attractive” as a qualification. Chinese cities are replete with karaoke bars filled with young “hostesses.” During the Euro 2012 soccer championships, a Guangdong television station decided to attract viewers by having young women wearing barely there bikinis read the weather for European cities during the matches.
And then there is the ubiquitous mistress culture.
Communist Party officials exposed for corruption are routinely found to have had multiple mistresses. Liu Zhijun, the railway minister fired in February 2011 for allegedly embezzling more than $150 million, was said in the local media to have kept 18 mistresses. When deposed Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai was expelled from the Communist Party in September, among his alleged misdeeds was “improper relationships with a number of women.”
“This is an organic component of the paternalistic, male-dominated culture,” Feng said. “Owning several mistresses” is, she said, for many officials, “evidence that he is a strong man.”
Women are also still fighting the negative stereotype — hardened by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing of the Gang of Four, and reinforced through a daily diet of television period dramas — that women can be ruthless and conniving concubines who have used their beauty and wiles to attract men and end up causing the destruction of ancient dynasties.
There are other impediments to women’s advancement in China. One of the most prevalent is the disparity in the retirement age.
Some of the obstacles
For most professional jobs, including the civil service, the normal retirement age is 60 for men but 55 for women. The difference has many practical effects, such as reducing the size of a woman’s pension, which is calculated by the number of years worked. More important, women have fewer hopes of advancing past their mid-to-late 40s, because employers know they will have to retire soon.
Women say part of the problem is that China’s predominantly male political leadership doesn’t recognize that the imbalance is a problem. Instead, many of the country’s leaders hold the view that it doesn’t matter how many women are in the top ranks, as long as men make decisions that benefit women.
But women say that’s not necessarily what’s happening. They say women’s voices need to be heard on issues large and small, such as the design of city subways and buses — where the handrails are too high for the average Chinese woman — and the manufacture of agriculture equipment, which is still made to the specifications of men, although women, with typically smaller frames, are now doing most of the farm work.
Hung Huang said the Party should also view the inclusion of more women as an issue of its own survival.
“Don’t you think it would help preserve the system if you had a Communist Party that was gentler, sweeter?” she said.
Liu Liu and William Wan in Beijing contributed to this report.