Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Wives' Relative Income and Marital Satisfaction among the Urban Chinese Population: Exploring Some Moderating Effects

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Wives' Relative Income and Marital Satisfaction among the Urban Chinese Population: Exploring Some Moderating Effects

Article excerpt


The economic role of married women in urban China has changed dramatically during the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century. During the socialist transformation period (1949-1977), the Chinese government adopted Engel's theory of the emancipation of women in its policies and actively promoted the near universal employment of urban women through a series of top-down communist ideological campaigns. The government's deliberate efforts to improve the status of women by ensuring equal employment opportunities have resulted in a dramatic rise in the proportion of women in the paid labor force. For example, according to a survey conducted in Nanjing, before 1949, 70.9% of women were jobless; of women married between 1950 and 1965,70.6% were employed; among women married between 1966 and 1976, 91.7% were employed (Pan, et al., 1987). The "low-wage-but-universal-employment" socialist policy, coupled with the "same-job-same-pay" gender ideology, turned both men and women into financial providers for the family in an economy of subsistence and also undermined men's economic power in urban areas (Tan, 1993). Meanwhile, the family functions (e.g. childcare) were socialized so that individual family could not even make many of their own decisions for family activities.

The market-oriented economy reform (1978 to the present) has turned the Chinese socialist economy upside down. The market forces that have been unleashed have increasingly taken away the State's functioning as the family welfare provider while also substantially weakening the State's control over family life. The private sectors have emerged due to the government's initiatives on privatization, decentralization and its open-door policy. The rapid economic growth and rising per capita income has created new jobs and opportunities for both men and women; however, the competitive labor market, the decline of state enterprises, and excessive labor supply have made it difficult to find or retain a job, especially for older, less educated, unskilled and female workers (Zuo, 2003).

The female labor force participation rate over this period is not published in the Chinese official dataset. According the reports of the United Nations (United Nations Statistic Division, 2008), the female labor force participation rate aged 15-64 in China from 1985-2006 has remained significantly high, and it is similar to that of Sweden, and higher than that of Canada, the USA, Japan and South Korea (see Figure 1).

In the process of market liberalization, substantial changes have been brought to urban labor markets, which have profoundly affected the economic status of urban women (Ngo, 2002). On one hand, the economic reform has expanded entrepreneurial opportunities for some women, bringing them higher salaries and greater levels of independence as they become their own bosses; or in foreign businesses, women may find greater opportunities to work in what are considered as prestigious jobs, providing them with enhanced status, generous compensation, and better advancement opportunities (Riley, 1996). On the other hand, for other Chinese women, the socialist market economy means even less economic security. With the introduction of market competition, women workers have suffered more prejudice and discrimination in the workplace (Liu, 1997).

With China's economic transition from a planned to a market-oriented economy, the economic contribution of married women to the household has tended to become more diversified, although the income inequality between husbands and wives has been rising, especially in the late 1990s (Ding et al., 2009). One study, conducted in six urban Chinese cities, indicated that the average relative contribution of wives to family income declined during the period 1988 to 1999 (Li, 2006). However, during the same period, there was a wider variation in the level of family income provided by wives. To be more specific, the proportion of both lower-and higher-earning wives was increasing, whereas that of equal-earning wives, in comparison to their husbands, was decreasing. …

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