Unpaid Work in China: Causes and Responses

By Han Ruiyang, Miao Wenchen, Xue Yuxuan, Shi Jiale

Generally, women undertake more unpaid work than men, which indicates significant gender inequalities. In China, even if time spent on unpaid domestic work has been declining with the boom of the economy, its distribution inside the family is still quite unequal[1]. China has promised to incorporate gender equality into basic state policies at the Fourth World Conference on Women[2]. However, national laws and policies for gender inequalities on unpaid work still need refinement. This paper presents relevant data, discusses the causes of gender gaps in unpaid work, and puts forward possible policy recommendations for the government.

Why is Female’s Domestic Unpaid Work Worth discussing?

First, UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 is to promote gender equality worldwide, and one of its priorities is to ensure that people support and share care equally.

Second, the promotion of gender equality in unpaid labor can advance the status of women. Domestic unpaid work’s value is not fully recognized by society right now. Generally, women do more unpaid work at home, their efforts are sometimes ignored, and their family status and social status are underestimated.

Third, the promotion of gender equality in unpaid work is essential for women’s development and the protection of women’s rights. The unequal distribution of domestic unpaid labor eliminates the employment and educational opportunities of women. Thus, doing more unpaid labor becomes a barrier to women’s development.

Therefore, we believe that the discussion of unpaid labor can help galvanize attention on the issues regarding gender equality and women’s rights.

Data of Unpaid Work in China

Data Source: The Global Gender Gap Report 2018[3].

The diagram indicates that in 2018, women are less engaged in labor paid work but show much higher participation in daily unpaid work than men do. In China, there are 68.8% of females participating in the labor force, however, the percentage rises to 82.8% when it comes to males. Furthermore, the disparity proportion reaches approximately 26% in the distribution of unpaid work. The phenomenon takes place in both China and South Korea only to varying degrees.

Data Source: OECD.Stats[4].

According to the official statistics published in 2020, there is a huge gap between the time female and male invested in unpaid work. Women in Korea took on 5 times more unpaid work than men on average. Overall, China has a longer length of time in unpaid work compared to Korea.

Causes of Women Taking up Unpaid Work in China:

1. The demand for care work is increasing. The International Labor Organization (ILO) points out that there were 2.1 billion people in need of care worldwide in 2015, and this number is expected to reach 2.3 billion by 2030[5]. In China, the demand for care work has been climbing up in the last 30 years because of the rapidly aging population, the implementation of the two-child policy, and the improvement in life expectancy[6]. For example, China now has 250 million people over the age of 60, of whom more than 40 million are disabled and in need of care[7].

2. The traditional gender norm encourages women to take up more unpaid work. The Chinese traditional norm of “men dominating the outside while women dominating the inside of households” has built the conservative gender-role in the family, constraining women from engaging in employment[8]. Currently, the Chinese gender perspective is in a period of transformation from traditional to modern. During the process of transformation, Chinese women have to suffer from the pressure both in the workplace and family.

3. The unequal gender division of social resources forces women to return to the family. According to The World Gender Report 2018, China ranks 103rd out of 149 countries in the global gender equality index, and the gender gap has been widening for 10 years[9]. This trend indicates that women have fewer social resources and opportunities than men generally in China, which means some women have to work inside to support their husbands working outside.

4. Women face difficulties in employment and promotion because of invisible discrimination against women in the workplace. According to Zhaopin.com, the average salary of men in the workplace in 2018 was 23% higher than that of women in China. Meanwhile, the female unemployment rate was on the rise. The report also shows that the proportion of men in senior positions was as high as 81.3%, while the proportion of women in that was only 18.7 %[10]. The discrimination against women has been strengthening the traditional gender norm and bias towards women’s fitness for unpaid housework.

Policy Recommendation

The Chinese government should take action to reduce women’s burden of unpaid work. The following are some recommendations.

-Promote social recognition of the value of unpaid work

To make unpaid work visible, the government needs to include the value of unpaid work into the system of national accounts. Since the 1990s, many developed countries have experimented to account for the value of domestic unpaid work. According to OECD, the value of domestic unpaid work accounts for a large proportion of GDP in countries such as Australia, where the share reaches 58%[11]. The national accounting system requires the establishment of a national database and official research concerning the situation of unpaid work in China.

-Reduce the burden of housework shouldered by family

  1. Provide public services: In China, the responsibility of domestic care work often falls to the family rather than the society. We are calling on the government to invest more public expenditure in social welfare and promote social service by establishing nurseries, kindergartens, and nursing homes[12].
  2. Encourage housekeeping business: The situation requires the Chinese housekeeping industry to move towards professionalization, standardization, and technology-oriented development. Given that, we recommend the Chinese government operate some stimulative policies for housekeeping companies, including vocational training and tax deduction.
  3. Adjust paid work time: Reforming paid work in a family-friendly way requires a combined effort of the government and enterprises. We urge the Chinese government to carry out regulations for reducing working time to ease women’s burden, including the promotion of maternity and parental leave for both men and women equally in companies through legislation.
  4. Improve employment protection for women

-Encourage more women to engage in paid work can help undermine the conservative gender norm of work division.

  1. Strengthen employment benefits: We suggest the government implement some favorable policies (like tax reduction and financial support) to encourage enterprises to employ more female workers since the market will not offer to employ workers regarded as “less efficient”[13].
  2. Readjust industrial structure: Improving the proportion of tertiary industries can provide numbers of employment positions suitable for women. At present, the employment in China’s tertiary industries accounts for 46.3% of all industries, however, most of which are labor-intensive industries[14]. It is urgent for us to develop more high-tech tertiary industries for female employment.
  3. Promote equal pay and opportunities: The government can extend the guarantee system of gender ratio and equal pay to the workplace. It can also promote gender equality practices through the help of social groups and volunteerism.

Reference list

[1] 第三期中国妇女社会地位调查课题组. (2011). 第三期中国妇女社会地位调查主要数据报告. 妇女研究论丛, 页 5-15.

[2] 江泽民主席在联合国第四次世界妇女大会欢迎仪式上的讲话. (2013年7月5日). 检索来源: 中华全国妇女联合会: http://www.women.org.cn/art/2013/7/5/art_231_103531.html

[3] Klaus Schwab. (2018).The Global Gender Gap Report 2018. The World Economic Forum.

[4] OECD. Stat. https://stats.oecd.org.

[5] ILO. (2018). Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work.

[6] Yi-lun, X. S.-w. (2020). Care Work and Social Inequality: Feminist Scholarship and its Implications for China. Journal of Chinese Women’s Studies, pp. 12-25.

[7] 国家卫生健康委员会. (2019). 《〈关于开展老年护理需求评估和规范服务工作的通知〉和〈关于加强医疗护理员培训和规范管理工作的通知〉的政策解读》.

[8] Dong-ling, J. Y.-z. (2015). Changes in a Gender Perspective from Multifaceted Perspective: The Case with “Men Dominating the Outside While Women Dominating the Inside of Households”. Collection of Women’s Studies, pp. 29-36.

[9] The World Economic Forum. (2018). The World Gender Report 2018.

[10] 智联招聘2019中国女性领导力高峰论坛举行 剖析生育权责[EB/OL]. http://finance.sdchina.com/show/4400408.html

[11] OECD. (2000). Household Production in OECD Countries: Data Sources and Measurement Methods.

[12] Xiao-yuan, D. (2009). Care Provision, Gender Equality and Public Policy——A Feminist Economic Perspective. Population and Development, pp. 61-67.

[13] 潘锦棠. (2015). 向公共家庭政策要妇女公平就业权利. 湖南师范大学社会科学学报, 页 74-79.

[14] 李晓琳.日本促进女性就业政策对我国的启示[J].劳动保障世界,2020(20):16-17.

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