A Prosperous China Says ‘Men Preferred,’ and Women Lose

TIANJIN, China — Bella Wang barely noticed the section on the application inquiring whether she was married or had children. Employers in China routinely ask women such questions, and she had encountered them before in job interviews.

It was a surprise, though, after she accepted a position as a manager at the company, a big language-training business in the northern city of Tianjin, when she was told the job came with a condition.

As a married woman without children, she would have to sign a “special agreement” promising not to get pregnant for two years. If she broke that promise, the company said, she could be fired, without compensation.

Ms. Wang, 32, fluent in English with a degree in international trade, was outraged — but she signed.

As a result, Chinese women are being squeezed out of the workplace by employers who penalize them if they have children, and by party officials urging them to focus on domestic life. At the same time, those who have managed to keep working are increasingly earning less relative to men.

Since signing the special agreement two years ago, Ms. Wang has been terrified of getting pregnant, and for good reason: In her first months on the job, a pregnant co-worker was fired.

Ms. Wang wanted to have a baby, too, she recalled, but signed the contract because she was excited about the job. Reporting her employer to the authorities also seemed unlikely to do much good.

“I’m still a Chinese woman,” she said recently in a coffee shop in Tianjin. “Even though we have some complaints, we cannot risk bringing them up. Because either way, we will lose.”

Forced to choose between career and family, Ms. Wang chose career. Many other Chinese women are dropping out of the work force.

The return of Chinese women to the home began in the 1980s, when mass layoffs at state factories meant women were often the first to be let go. It accelerated with rising expectations around child rearing.

Wang Yan, 35, a stay-at-home mother in the eastern city of Yantai, said that her parents “only needed to make sure their kids weren’t hungry.”

“The entire deck is stacked against women in so many ways,” she said.

Ms. Shao, who graduated with a degree in computer science from one of China’s top universities, said her ex-husband suggested investing in an apartment together even before they were married. At the time, he was finishing a doctorate and she was making about $600 a month as a computer programmer.

His parents made the $29,000 down payment, as a gift and investment, and she agreed to cover the $450 monthly payments.

“I was just very foolish, very innocent,” she recalled.

Ms. Shao asked her ex-husband to add her name to the deed several times, but he always talked her out of it, arguing that she could enjoy benefits as a new buyer later if they invested in another property, she recalled.

Years later, after they married and moved to Shanghai, Ms. Shao discovered he was having an affair. Because she had proof that she made the mortgage payments, her relatives managed to negotiate a cash settlement for her.

Most women in China, though, have fewer options, and many end up with nothing in a divorce. Others choose to remain in even abusive marriages.

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