Working Parents in China

David Rocks

I had lunch today with Nandani Lynton, head of the Beijing office of Thunderbird, the international management school in Arizona. One observation she had was that for the first time in decades, China has what you might call housewives. As the middle class there gets more prosperous, it’s possible for women to stay home rather than working. Another, less positive, observation she had was that China has ever fewer women at highest levels of government and business.

From my days in Eastern Europe, I have to say this doesn’t surprise me. In Poland and the Czech Republic (where I lived) and in fact in most of the countries in the region, Communist propaganda made much of the status of women in society. International Women’s Day was a holiday in most countries, and their fake legislatures typically had far more women than the U.S. Congress or the parliaments in Western Europe. As often as not, though, those women in the legislature and other positions of influence would go home and face just as much housework as their counterparts in the West. So when the Communists were booted from power after 1989, women quickly lost much of their putative status in a backlash against the old regime.

Clearly, whether women (or men, for that matter) stay home with the kids or go out to earn a paycheck is a personal decision. The problem is when those who want or feel they need to work can’t do so, or can’t get the support they require to make it possible. For China, I’d say it’s a good thing that families are finally feeling prosperous enough to have one partner stay at home. At the same time, though, the reasons for the shift--the backlash against a false sense of women’s rights-—is less positive. And if women are losing the ability to work due to a return to traditionalism, that's downright pernicious. The good news for the Chinese (and for most Eastern Europeans) is that there are pretty decent childcare options for those who do work. In our own country, I’m not so sure that’s the case.

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