Wednesday, December 8, 2010

For China's Women, Part II

Last week, or maybe the week before that, I linked to this article, with a promise to revisit it. I've had a lot going on recently (a family illness, other things) but here I am, finally doing so.

For me, this article stands out with examples of how Asian women, and to a lesser extent all women in Asia (who, hey, are not always Asian) are at a disadvantage not just legally, but culturally.

What I don’t like about this article, though, is that it jumps around between women in the Asian workforce and expectations of women in order to be marriageable. I feel as though those could be two separate articles – one focusing on how difficult it is for women to find purchase on a career track that’s going somewhere, and another on what is expected of women in order to be desireable. They’re two entirely different topics.

Taiwan is not quite as bad as China when it comes to seeking out work if you are female: while classified ads will still, occasionally, go over expectations of height, weight, appearance and age (with other not-lovely add-ons including specifying “with a sweet voice”), those tend to be relegated to hostess, wait staff, masseuse, “assistant” and “secretarial” positions. Nobody at a Big Four accounting firm is going to specify what new auditors need to look like. Nobody at a major bank is going to specify the appearance required for applicants to its management training program.

Of course, you’ll also remember that while hiring requirements for flight attendants in the West have become far less sexist, those in Asia are throwbacks to an earlier, more discriminatory, downright “Mad Men” era. I guess for male airline passengers, the upside shows through with adorable flight attendants. The downside? Looks valued over qualifications. Cuteness over experience. Lingering notions that a woman’s greatest asset is her beauty (ever seen a male flight attendant on an Asian airline?). In fact, many advertising campaigns for airlines put their flight attendants front and center – as if to say, “hey, our girls are sexier than the competition”. That’s demeaning for everyone, but you don’t exactly hear people complaining – except for the very occasional women’s rights group. The fact that they don’t complain is a sign of a deeper problem in Asian society.

I should note that I don’t feel bad using the sweeping moniker of “Asian society”. Yes, Asia is huge, but I’ve visited and lived in quite a few places in it and the same themes keep replaying themselves. I am sure at the individual level there are exceptional stories (I could tell a few – especially from India) but on a broader scale, I don’t doubt that what I say is true.

In short, I’ve noticed that at the lower-paid, assistant/service end of the economy there is still quite a bit of blatant sexism.

One advantage China has over Taiwan is regarding childbirth/maternity leave. While in some sectors of the workforce, and among some Neolithic bosses, I am sure there is still discrimination associated with plans for childbirth, in general I have not observed this to be a problem. Taiwanese women are guaranteed 50 some-odd days of maternity leave (it usually works out to be just about 2 months) – one month of which is usually spent in “坐月子” – the traditional month of total rest for new mothers. I can’t speak for China, but Taiwan even has “hotels” where new mothers go to rest for the duration of this month, with nurses who care for the children except when the mother requests to see her newborn. Alongside this is the still-extant tradition of mother-in-laws swooping in to take care of everything at home.

The main difference here is that Taiwanese employers don’t seem to mind this, while Chinese employers clearly do.

I attribute this to two factors: first, that Taiwan is generally more progressive than China regarding women’s rights, respect for feminine power, and women’s equality. In Taiwan it’s common to take your month off (坐月子) as well as any more maternity leave or saved leave a new mother can cobble together – the difference is that employers generally don’t balk at this – they accept it as necessary. I am sure there are some exceptions, but from my extensive experience working on contract at various offices around Taipei, Xinzhu and Tainan, I say with confidence that it’s usually not a problem.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of “sitting for a month” (zuo yue zi or 坐月子), it stems from a traditional belief that childbirth is a stressful and draining experience, and that new mothers need a month of complete rest before they can be expected to resume even nominal daily duties (whether that’s in the home or the workplace). Traditionally, the woman’s mother would swoop in and take care of everything – the cleaning, the cooking, the baby care – and the new mother would…well, rest. Play with her baby. But mostly rest. Some old beliefs include a rule against ingesting anything cold, drinking water (which is why soup and meat cooked for new mothers used to be made with alcohol and/or oil), washing their hair or doing anything that carried even the slightest risk of illness. Back in the old days when hot water baths were uncommon and water itself wasn’t necessarily safe, this made sense. Now, the new mother’s mother may still come to visit, but often those duties are hired out, or are taken care of in a specialized “hotel” for new mothers, which I mentioned above. Note how new fathers are still not expected to do much heavy lifting for their wives or newborn children, other than bringing home the bacon! Ah, I love the smell of sexism in the morning! I will grant the fathers this: they work hard. Too hard, in fact. All Taiwanese do. A topic for another post, that. But let it be known that I think Taiwanese people work too hard!

Second, National Health Insurance (hey America, listen up!). Employers usually contribute to monthly premiums for individual and family health coverage, but that coverage includes maternity benefits – doctors, tests, hospital stays. The employer may need to provide leave for a new mother, but this is not avoided by not hiring women. The same employer does not need to chip in to cover the costs of prenatal and post-natal care – much of it is covered by National Health Insurance (of course, some of the new, natural-birth or progressive birthing centers are not covered, but necessary hospital tests usually are, and child delivery is, as well as pediatric care).

In many ways, Taiwanese women have it better than American women when it comes to childbirth and natal care. American women are not guaranteed insurance coverage for the extraordinarily high costs of prenatal, delivery and postnatal care. There is no government-stipulated maternity leave (forget paternity leave – Taiwanese men may get a mere few days of paternity leave but that’s more than American men are granted by the US government). Most offices do offer maternity leave as a benefit, but it’s at the discretion of the employer.

It is absolutely true that many American companies quietly, surreptitiously discriminate against married women of childbearing age – there are many articles out there covering this issue. In that way, we Americans are really not that different from China. Doesn’t that just give you a great feeling? I love reading about my home country and getting a pit in my stomach for how sickening it can be.

I am sure it is also an issue at some companies for some women in Taiwan. I don’t mean to say that my experience in offices that generally respect women is the absolute – surely there are exceptions. They seem to be, however, exceptions rather than rules. One of the many ways in which China (and America) can learn from Taiwan.

I don’t mean to say that sexism doesn’t exist here – it certainly does. I’m merely trying to point out a few ways in which Taiwan gets it right.

In a future blog post, I want to address the prevalence of women in accounting and finance positions, and the lack of general belief here that women are bad with money (which is related, in my opinion, to the belief that women are just as capable and qualified to enter politics as men, and Taiwanese female politicians will generally not have sexist hate-speech lobbed at them the same way that American female politicians – Hello Hillary! – will). For now, however, this will do.

1 comment:

catherine_sr. said...

This is a really fascinating post, Jenna! The part about postpartum care made me curious about maternal mortality rates in the US versus Taiwan, so I looked it up... Taiwan ranked 36 in the world, while the US ranked 39 (as of 2008). So they are only a few places off... but the difference is that Taiwan's maternal mortality rate dropped 3.3% between 1990 and 2008, while the US's rate *increased* 2.1%. That really highlights just how messed up the US health care system is. I'm with you -- thinking of how things are back in my home country freaks me out.
I'm looking forward to your next post on this subject and I'm sorry to hear of the illness in your family.