Education Narrows—But Does Not Eliminate—Chinese Gender Gap In Household Labor

December 3 @ 8:19 pm
By Communications Office

According to the findings of Professor Qin Gao and her colleagues, China, too, has a ways to go in lessening the “double burden” carried by its working women.

Women’s participation in the paid labor market in the United States has risen steadily since the 1960s. But despite these advances, American working women still carry the brunt of unpaid work within the home and spend more time caring for children and performing household tasks than men. What is more, men tend to spend more time than women not only in paid labor but in social and leisure activities as well.

How does this record compare with that of China, with its legacy of a socialist and planned economy with high involvement of all women in the labor force? According to the findings of a study by Professor Qin Gao with colleagues from Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, China, too, relies heavily on women for a large proportion of uncompensated work, whether in urban or rural settings.

The researchers also uncovered, however, a ray of hope. Using data from the 2010 China Family Panel Studies, they found that urban wives who had the same or higher levels of education as their husbands experience a narrower unpaid labor gap than women with less education than their husbands, suggesting that education can be a remediating factor for the unpaid gender gap.

READ: “Education and gender gap in couples’ time use: evidence from China,” in Journal of Asian Public Policy (6.18.19)

Interestingly, however, in rural settings when a woman’s education level matches that of her husband, the findings are more mixed. Such women enjoy increased leisure time but they also perform more unpaid labor relative to their rural counterparts with less education than their partners. The researchers speculate that educated women may be overcompensating to avoid upsetting the traditional gender roles, which tend to be even more entrenched in rural environments.

“These results provide a nuanced understanding of gender inequality in China as reflected by time use,” Gao and her colleagues write, “an important and arguably more accurate measure than many others, such as the widely used gender pay gap.”

Gao and her colleagues suggest three mechanisms that could help to make the situation fairer for coupled Chinese women:

  1. Education may lead couples away from more traditionally aligned gender roles and toward an appreciation of gender equity.
  2. Increased education—especially among women—often leads couples to have fewer children, therefore creating less household labor and easing the equity of that labor.
  3. Higher levels of education can lead to increased incomes, which allow these couples to afford care provided by others to handle much of their domestic labor.

Partly inspired by her personal experience, Gao feels strongly about doing further study on each of these mechanisms. “Upon entering parenthood, you become even more acutely aware of the roles men and women are expected to play, both in public and at home,” she says. “The division of labor—especially unpaid labor—can be stark, even within couples who actively seek equity. We need more research to show just how wide these gaps are and what possible solutions can help eliminate these gaps.”


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