When Cai Ning moved to China from Belgium with her family five years ago, she did not expect her life as a full-time housewife in her home country to be so hard.
Devoting most of her time to housework and caring for her two sons in the eastern city of Nanjing, the 38-year-old said the most frequent comments she got when people learned she had a PhD were: “What a waste” and: “Your husband must earn a lot of money!”
While full-time mothers with degrees are not uncommon in Belgium, they are a rarity in China, where grandparents usually take on the role of childcare so both parents can work.
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“The grannies and working moms I meet when I take my boys out to play often give me a surprised look and ask questions like, ‘What do you do in the day then?’,” said Cai – not her real name – who has been a housewife since her first child was born seven years ago.
Despite often feeling like outsiders, a growing number of well-educated Chinese women are becoming housewives, as families get richer and educational gender disparity reduces in the world’s second-largest economy.
The “labour force participation rate” for women aged 15 and above has been steadily falling in China, from 79 per cent in 1990 to 60 per cent this year, according to figures from the World Bank.
Zheng Bingwen, an economics professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said economic growth was the main factor behind the trend.
“Usually, the higher a region’s GDP, the lower the labour force participation rate,” he said. “Better income allows more families to have just one breadwinner and often the wife stays at home.”
But increased opportunities for women meant the housewife group had also become better educated, he said.
Gender equality in China, from birth ratio to politics and unpaid care work, still has a long way to go: report
According to China’s Ministry of Education, in 2019 about 52 per cent of undergraduates and 51 per cent of postgraduate students were women.
Zhou Yun, an assistant professor of sociology and Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, said rather than opting out of the labour market, many educated housewives were being forced out because of inequality and family pressures.
“Women face rampant and overt labour market gender discrimination, and still shoulder the lion’s share of household labour and childcare work,” she said.
Despite the decline in recent decades, China’s workforce still has a higher proportion of women than many other countries, according to the World Bank. The rates are 57 per cent in the United States, 55 per cent in Germany and 53 per cent in Japan.
“Household labour remains invisible, it’s taken for granted that it’s women’s work but it’s not valued,” Zhou said.
“Working outside the home may feel like the only path to independence and security, so for many highly educated Chinese women, being a housewife does not feel like a viable option,” she said.
According to a poll on the Chinese question and answer website Zhihu.com, 62 per cent of 227,000 respondents said it was a waste for an educated woman to be a housewife.
“If I complain that my husband is too busy at work and has little time for the family, then everyone, including my in-laws, my sister and friends, will ask me to show more understanding,” Cai said.
“The logic behind this is that work is more important, especially for men. In China, you can’t simply refuse to work over the weekend saying you need to look after the kids,” she said.
A lack of policy support for housewives is another reason why Chinese women are more likely to go out to work than women in other countries.
In Belgium, new mothers can apply for nursing assistance, while Cai said some of her male Japanese friends told her their employers transferred at least 50 per cent of their salaries to their wives’ bank accounts.
“In China, there is nothing,” she said.
Dong Xiaoying, a women’s rights lawyer in Guangzhou, said the rising number of educated housewives was nothing to cheer about.
“It’s progress only when there are policies in this country to guarantee housewives’ basic rights, to acknowledge their unpaid work and to allow them not to be totally dependent on their families,” she said.
Cai said she doubted there would be any improvement, even by the time her sons grew up.
“If I had a daughter, I would advise her not to be a housewife when she marries,” she said. “It’s just too tough.”
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