HONG KONG—Discrimination in the workplace still presents major obstacles to equality for Chinese women, according to a series of interviews with Chinese women and social commentators.
"On the face of it, there seems to be equality under the Chinese Communist Party. But in reality it's very unequal," Guizhou-based independent commentator Wu Yuqin said.
On International Women's Day, 2009, Chinese women still face major barriers to finding work in the graduate labor market and fear getting pregnant if they have a job, out of concern their employer will fire them, a common practice despite protection on paper offered by China's Labor Law.
"I have a lot of friends who went to Shanghai to work," Wu said.
"None of them dares to get pregnant because they're afraid that their employer will just replace them with someone else."
Wu said Chinese women often are unaware that such discriminatory practices are illegal and get little help from official bodies.
"These organizations like the All China Women's Federation are useless because they are under the Party. They have no real freedom to act independently," she said.
Labor rights 'violated'
Liu Feiyue, of the nongovernmental group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, agreed.
"In terms of women's employment rights, there are still a lot of cases in which women's rights are violated," he said.
"For example, in the labor market, there are a lot of employers who simply don't want to employ a woman."
Liu also cited a lack of workplace safety measures for low-paid women workers, who are often migrants from rural areas with little education.
"There is also the issue of health hazards to women from environmental pollutants in the workplace, which can be harmful to their health," he said.
"What's more, they're not protected by health insurance, and they can't claim the fees back for health care."
Overseas rights groups cite high levels of unemployment among highly qualified Chinese women, while unskilled migrant women workers are preferred by employers as being less likely to take a stand on labor rights, pay, and working conditions.
Women as resource
Yang Lili, an editor at the U.S.-based human rights Web site Observe China, said the status of women never really improved during the Mao era, despite Mao's dictum about their holding up "half the sky."
"Mao and the Chinese government viewed women as more of a labor force, a production source, rather than as human beings," Yang said.
He said the biggest challenge now faced by Chinese women is the rising unemployment rate among graduates.
"After 30 years of economic reform, Chinese women still don’t have basic rights as human beings," Yang said.
According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB), harsh working and living conditions for migrant workers in coastal cities have put pregnant women at a higher risk.
In the southern province of Guangdong, mortality rates among pregnant migrant workers is 40 per 100,000 persons, compared with only 20 in the general population.
The average mortality rate of pregnant women in developed countries is about 10 per 100,000, and just two in Sweden and six in Canada, the CLB said.
Call for government action
And according to the New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC), women in China have failed to achieve economic or social gains at the same level or pace as men; and rural, migrant, and ethnic minority women and girls are doubly vulnerable.
Up to 70 percent of rural residents without land are women, while the adult illiteracy rate for women is 2.7 times that of men, HRIC said in a recent report.
A Beijing-based worker in her 20s called on the government to take better care of women workers.
"I think that women face more challenges than men in competition for white-collar jobs because they shoulder the burden of family and children more," she said.
"I wish that the government or employers would take better care of women. For example, by reimbursing more medical expenses during pregnancy and childbirth, so as to not place too much of a burden on the family budget," she added.
A retired rocket scientist in Beijing surnamed Zhang said ideally there should be no need for positive discrimination in the workplace.
"I believe that if you promote the equality of one gender over the other, they will never be truly equal," Zhang said. "True equality consists of absolutely no policies to protect either gender."
Career and family
But she added: "Right now, such policies may be needed, as Chinese women traditionally were, and most of them still are, in a disadvantaged or vulnerable position."
Fear of losing jobs, when found, is also a recurring theme, as factories close up amid the global economic crisis, sending millions of migrant workers back to their hometowns in the less prosperous western areas of the country.
A single woman from Tianjin in her 20s said that more and more Chinese women who have jobs are focusing on their professional development above all else.
"I am pretty career-oriented ... I think if I had to choose between my career and marriage, I would probably choose my career. Of course, if I could have both, that would be terrific."
Original reporting in Mandarin by An Pei and Han Qing. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.