Recently, many provinces in China extended maternity leave in a bid to boost population growth. China’s national birth rate fell below 10 percent for the first time last year, to 8.52 percent, the lowest rate since 1978, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. However, the lack of robust anti-discrimination policies does not bode well for women in the workplace.
On 31 May, China announced that married couples could have up to three children. The National People's Congress amended the Population and Family Planning Law on 20 August, showing top-level support for parental leave. In response, local governments have extended maternity leave by anywhere from 30 days to up to six months. Female employees are eligible for maternity leave ranging from 128 days to one year in total.
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Among them, Jiangxi province has increased maternity leave by 90 days, and Zhejiang province has extended maternity leave for second and third children by 90 days. Shaanxi province proposes that female employees who give birth to three children receive an additional six months of leave, with a total maternity leave of up to 350 days.
Many provinces have also increased paternity leave. Among them, paternity leave in Ningxia province (a draft policy) will be 35 days, and Anhui, Jiangxi, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces are making it 30 days.
Depending on the age of the children, joint parental leave ranges from 5 to 30 days each year, and parents can take a maximum of one year off. In most areas, both spouses are given parental leave of the same length. Chongqing has more flexible regulations allowing one partner to take parental leave until the child turns one year old, or both partners to take 5 to 10 days of parental leave each year up to when the child turns six years old.
Establishing paternity leave policies and promoting parental leave should allow both men and women to share the responsibility of childcare, alleviating pressure on women. But when maternity leave is far longer than paternity leave, this is likely to exacerbate the traditional gender division of labour.
These policies also do little for the problems women face in the workplace. On social media, women discuss their concerns about gender discrimination in the recruitment process, dismissal of pregnant women, and job insecurity after maternity leave.
A gender pay gap report shows that in 2020, the average salary for urban women is 75.9 percent of the average salary for men. Since men tend to earn more, women are more likely to take parental leave and interrupt their career progression.
At present, companies pick up the tab for maternity leave, which include wages, social insurance payments, and the cost of additional staff. Despite bans against gender discrimination in recruitment, 55.8 percent of women have been asked about their marital and reproductive status during the job application process, and 29.6 percent of women came up against gender barriers when applying for a job, according to the 2021 China Women’s Workplace Status Survey Report.
Some companies may avoid implementing maternity leave policies altogether. In 2016, the Women Workers Committee of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions surveyed 12 provinces, finding that 32.7 percent of women workers had less than 90 days of maternity leave.
In 2019, 214 million people were covered by maternity insurance. There were 14.65 million births that year, but only 3.5 million women received maternity allowance. This reveals that the vast majority of women who give birth do not enjoy maternity insurance benefits, and even fewer enjoy maternity allowances. Women working in private enterprises or migrant workers tend to lose out the most.
A 2021 survey conducted by the Women Workers Committee of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions found that 34.5 percent of women workers saw income reductions, 24.2 percent found their promotion opportunities were affected, 17.7 percent saw their careers stall, 16.6 percent lost opportunities for further education, 16.3 percent did not return to their original jobs after maternity leave, and 7.8 percent had social insurance payments stopped.
Unless the government bears part of the costs for maternity leave, companies are likely to avoid hiring women to safeguard their profit margins. And a lack of coordination between maternity leave and gender discrimination policies will likely make workplaces a far more difficult, and less family-friendly, environment for women to navigate.