Housewives and unintended progress

by Dana on August 16, 2011

I can’t stop thinking about the interview I saw yesterday on Charlie Rose with SOHO’s billionare founder. One thing has stuck with me since, when Charlie’s asked her whether women fare far worse than men in China, and she answered that Chinese women probably fare the best in the world on a relative scale, when it comes to freedom and choices.

Now, social issues aside (let’s be clear that Chinese women, particularly rural ones, are seriously oppressed through marriage and traditional patriartical values, do in fact have the highest suicide rate of any female groups in the world), this is an interesting discussion to be had. Zhang’s arguement was that most middle-class Chinese women have a lot of support to learn on – child-rearing is supported by parents on both sides, and much household tasks can be off-loaded to affordable and readily available labour that migrates from the rural areas. This frees them up to pursue things outside of their homes, whether intellectually or in business matters. It is not hard to spot women in Chinese boards and high level executivie positions, nor are girls’ aspirations to make themselves a career anything to be surprised about. Compared to its East Asian neighbours, Korea and Japan, the female participation rates in the labour force is far far higher.

But consider how accidental this “progress” came to be – who could have predicted that in a still rather traditional and Confucius society, females in China have achieved what decades of feminist movements and thoughts in the West have fallen short in – an aspiration and a firmer grasp of economic freedom. Most of these are due to two events completely unrelated and unintended to have anything to do with female empowerment: 1) politics ordained official “equality”, and just like East Germany, this communist/socialist value pushed a lot of females into the work force, and 2) when China finally opened up post-80s, the working mentality had already been deeply entrenched in the Chinese female psyches for more than a generation, and urban females jumped on the career fast-track, courtesy of rural migration that bought to the cities wave after wave of available domestic help.

The cloest thing you see to the Chinese phenonemon is perhaps the US, where cheap Mexican labour has also freed up many Americans, men and women, to pursue more economically productive matters. In Europe, on the other hand, through stricter migration and labour laws, higher taxes (which makes it more worthwhile for you to take care of your own children, mow your own lawns, cook your own meals, and paint your own houses), and perhaps a higher level of complancy of females in knowing that their “equality” is realized through legal versus economic means, has practically barred its women from venturing back to the work force after having a family.  So is it Schadenfreude when the continent scratched its head and wonders what other tricks it has under its sleeves as to how it can best motivate and allow its highly-educated female population to become more productive members of society?

So while European women has resolved the work and life balance issue by clearly ticking the life box (or work, if you want to remain childless, and possibly family-less), and American women continues to fidget through internal battles of guilt, worries, while balancing and weighing their ambitions against their familial responsibilities, their Chinese counter-parts can more or less have both. It’s still an art to hold together a family while making meaningful contribution to your career, help or no help, but consider the probabilities of success in those aforementioned instances.

Sometimes when I see housewives leisurely pushing carts of their children through the park here in the neighbourhood, I wonder, in 20 years, when faced with their counter-part from another part of the world, children, husband, and all, how would these women feel? Would the so-called “equality indicators” really mean much at all? And whether more unintended factors, whether they be demographics, politics, matters of nature, will have far more influence over our lives than things we have struggled to advance and control.