Chinese couples’ reproductive choices are profoundly affected by fertility policies, particularly the well-known one-child policy that was strictly enforced in urban areas for more than three decades. Since a universal two-child policy was launched by the Chinese government on Jan. 1, 2016, all couples have been allowed to have two children.
This means an additional 90 million women are now eligible to have a second child. The two-child policy is expected to alleviate some population problems China is facing, including rapid population aging, skewed sex ratios and a shrinking workforce.
However, little attention has been paid to how the new policy might affect gender equality. Do women under the new two-child policy have the ability to stop having children when they no longer want more children? The answers have far-reaching implications for women’s rights in China.
Unlike Canada and many European countries that use generous family-friendly policies to encourage fertility and facilitate work-family balance, the Chinese government no longer provides welfare benefits such as child-care subsidies or publicly funded kindergartens.
While the one-child policy greatly constrained Chinese couples’ childbearing decisions, the implementation of the universal two-child policy means that decisions about whether to have a second child are more dynamic, flexible and subject to negotiation between spouses.
Couple dynamics and women’s autonomy
My colleague, Dr. Yongai Jin, and I are researching the effect of couple dynamics — marital power and fertility pressures from husbands — on women’s fertility autonomy in urban China. In a recent paper published in the journal Chinese Sociological Review, we looked at data from a 2016 research survey on the fertility decision-making processes in Chinese families.
We looked at 1,124 married mothers in urban areas who already had one child in 2016 and desired no more than two children. We considered women who intended to have a second birth against their own desires as having “low fertility autonomy.”
In the survey, women were asked to indicate who had the greatest power in their families. About 46 per cent of women in our sample reported that they exercised greater power than their husbands in their marital relationships.
We found that women’ marital power helped mitigate the negative impact of spousal pressure on women’s fertility autonomy. Among women who perceived themselves as having less power in marriage, fertility pressure from the husband increased the likelihood that women intended to have a second child, despite the fact that they had no desire to have another baby.
In contrast, when women reported themselves as having greater power in marriage, their intentions to have a second child did not change with levels of pressure from their husbands.
Since couple dynamics are key to Chinese women’s fertility autonomy, it is crucial to identify factors that can influence couple dynamics. Drawing on the theory of resources as it relates to families, we found that women’s marital power increased with their share of household income, whereas fertility pressure from husbands persisted regardless of women’s income shares.
Gender inequality in China could be worsened
Based on our research, we believe that gender inequality in urban China is perpetuated through a vicious circle. A widening gender pay gap and growing discrimination against mothers likely diminish the relative economic resources women bring to the family, and in turn reduces women’s marital power. All this has negative implications for women’s ability to chose their own paths. Their ability to say no to their husbands when they do not want more children diminishes.
Meanwhile, as Chinese women continue to carry a disproportionate share of family responsibilities such as housework and child care, having more children and greater family demands could increase women’s work-family conflicts and jeopardize women’s careers.
During the socialist era, the Chinese government built a social welfare system to relieve women of the domestic obligations associated with taking care of children and actively promoted gender equality ideologies such as “women hold up half the sky.”
Ironically, in recent decades, the state has withdrawn from welfare provisioning and its egalitarian gender ideology has become muted. Given the lack of family-friendly policies and the government’s inattention to gender equality, conflicts between work and family responsibilities are likely to worsen and women disproportionately bear the burden and opportunity costs associated with child-bearing and child-rearing.
Policies aimed at reducing the gender pay gap and promoting egalitarian divisions of labour between husbands and wives would increase women’s marital power and fertility autonomy.
We believe that more policies should be developed to lessen the disadvantages arising from bearing and raising children that women face and to enhance women’s status in the era of the universal two-child policy.