With China’s fertility rate having fallen off a cliff, many experts have offered advice to address the problem, but all of their proposals lack an essential component: a critical perspective on the role of gender.
Because the focus has been on the impact of high childrearing costs on fertility, the career penalties that women incur when they have a child have largely been overlooked. China’s policymakers would benefit greatly from the work of Harvard University economist Claudia Goldin, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics this year for her research advancing “our understanding of women’s labor-market outcomes.”
What does a gender-critical economics perspective suggest about China’s falling fertility rate? For starters, increasing literature on women’s labor-market outcomes shows that bearing a child can have significant negative effects on a woman’s employment prospects and salary.
Illustration: Mountain People
This “parenthood penalty” is usually better understood to be a “motherhood penalty,” as it falls almost exclusively on women. The data make clear that women with children work and earn less than women without children, with some economists putting the parenthood penalty at about 20 percent of income.
Taking that figure as a benchmark, economists Zhao Yaohui (趙耀輝), Zhang Xiaobo (張曉波) and I looked into the lifetime income losses associated with childbirth in China, and found that they total about US$78,000.
Previously, the YuWa Population Research Institute examined the costs of childbearing in China — from rising formula prices and housing rent to education-related expenses — and estimated that the cost of raising a child to the age of 18 is about US$66,000.
That is 6.9 times China’s per capita GDP, a ratio much higher than in the US, France or Germany.
Yet this figure accounts only for direct costs.
When the parenthood penalty is added, the average total cost of raising a child in China could be as high as US$144,000. While it could be about US$84,000 in rural areas, it could be more than US$300,000 in urban centers such as Beijing and Shanghai.
These are just the quantifiable monetary costs. There are additional risks, such as those stemming from rising divorce rates and poorly regulated processes for assigning custody of children.
When Zhang Jing (張菁) of the Beijing Lawyers Association examined more than 700 cases involving custody, she found that children were forcibly separated or hidden from a parent — mostly by fathers — 13 percent of the time.
As China’s rising divorce rate is a new phenomenon, laws and enforcement in this domain leave much to be desired. Cases of mothers with legal custody rights but deprived of access to their children are not unusual.
As in most countries, working women in China also bear an unfair and disproportional burden when it comes to family care and household work.
The World Bank has said that the female labor-force participation in China is 61.1 percent — much higher than global average of 50 percent — but women do 2.6 times more unpaid domestic and care work than men.
It is no wonder that modern Chinese women are reluctant to have children. Like the working US women whom Goldin studies, Chinese women today are very different from their mothers and grandmothers.
This is a generation that grew up with the one-child policy and the expansion of college enrollment for women starting in 1999. They have had better educational opportunities, and they have benefited from the legacy of “reform and opening-up” and China’s accession to the WTO in 2001.
Having made educational, professional and social gains that previous generations scarcely could have imagined, many Chinese women do not want to settle for the traditional model of marriage where men are the breadwinners and the bosses of the household, and women are the subordinate homemakers. They refuse to accept that being a mother should be their entire identity.
Yet now that China’s fertility rate remains stubbornly low, there is renewed social pressure on women to “behave responsibly” by resuming their former roles. Parents are also urging their daughters to get married and have children, lest they become “leftover women” — those still single after age 27.
However, this pressure is merely adding to the burden and agitation that many aspiring working women bear. Faced with overwhelming demands, many women are doing the opposite of what they are told and refusing to get married. This makes perfect sense. As long as they are single, they cannot be pressured to have babies and fulfil the overwhelming double role of full-time professional and homemaker.
Modern Chinese women are silently striking. Exhausted from working at the office and at home, they need men to share more household and childcare responsibilities, and they need better policy and legal frameworks to account for gender inequities.
The solution to falling fertility rates thus cannot be only material or monetary in nature. Subsidizing childcare or kindergarten services is important, but so is doing more to ensure gender equality.
China’s policies and social values should respect and promote women’s and men’s freedom of choice in work and/or at home. The government needs to recognize that many women long for a successful career, and it should encourage and celebrate men who share household and childcare responsibilities.
China benefits from its extraordinary power to achieve policy goals. If Chinese policymakers take additional steps with more gender perspectives, they could enjoy more sustainable and healthy fertility rates and help women truly “hold up half the sky.”
Qian Liu is managing director of the Economist Group in Greater China.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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