Monday, September 16, 2013

Can Chinese Women Have it All?

Last year, Anne Marie Slaughter famously told the world “Why Women Can’t Have it All”: that women could not be both good mothers and professionally successful, to simplify it a little. Thursday’s WAPPP Seminar asked that question to one out of every five women on the planet.


Well, not literally. But Karen Eggleston, director of the Asia Health Policy program at Stanford University, and HKS’s Richard Zeckhauser, did present their excellent research on “Jobs and Kids: Female Employment and Fertility in China.” They ask if female employment in China affects, or is affected by, the number of children women bear. The question is particularly important for China, the world’s biggest population (1.4 billion) with a “one-child policy” in a booming, urbanizing market economy.

They conclude that there is a negative correlation: employment often reduces the number of children that women want and have. So if the Chinese government’s goal is to reduce the population, they’d be better off increasing women’s employment and education (which also improves job prospects), rather than something as draconian---and with as many consequences---as forced sterilization or regulatory restrictions.

Eggleston and her coauthors then looked at some ways to improve employment: increase access tochildcare services, so women could “have it all” more efficiently, and as a transit nut, I was pleased when they explore how access to bus service improves women’s employment outcomes.

Of course, these lessons from China speak volumes about what's needed elsewhere: for women anywhere to truly try and "have it all", they at least need to have the same access as all. That includes fixing society’s failure to value the monetary and social contribution of work undertaken in the home, an argument made by both feminist activist Betty Friedan and many social conservatives.

It also includes improving the nature of work: too many people sacrifice too much (including family) to work too hard, for too little payback. This is particularly true in China, where underpaid factory work often disrupts families with little promise of improvement, but also in the US, where economic mobility has stagnated.

Lastly, it should include increasing social interdependence: As Barnard President Debra Spar writes, "if women are ever to solve the ‘women’s problem,’ they…cannot do it alone…This isn’t because women aren’t smart enough, or unable to garner sufficient power. It’s just the basic math. Men must help.”

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