Dec 29, 2018 06:09 PM

Lining Up to Get Pregnant: The Unintended Victims of the Two-Child Rule

A family parenting company opens a job fair for women on Aug. 21 in the eastern city of Hangzhou. Photo: VCG
A family parenting company opens a job fair for women on Aug. 21 in the eastern city of Hangzhou. Photo: VCG

Pan Jiayi, a kindergarten teacher, was fired for cutting in line.

She didn’t cut in at the cafeteria, or at a bus stop. Instead, she was accused of flouting her company’s official “pregnancy queue.” When she revealed she was pregnant, the kindergarten fired her for “violating company regulations.”

At Pan’s kindergarten women were required to schedule their pregnancies at separate times. According to its “comprehensive assessment,” she was seventh in line when she became pregnant with her second child, the government-backed newspaper Jiancha Daily reported. The school, where the teachers are overwhelmingly female, had given priority to those welcoming their first-born.

Pan took her employer to court and won her case in November. But others aren’t so lucky.

In a country where workplace gender discrimination is supposedly illegal, it continues to run rampant. And in China, the gender gap is only getting bigger. An annual report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in December found the gap between male and female economic participation has grown for the fifth year in a row.

But the gap in equality within workplaces is affecting mothers, and would-be mothers, in particular. The transformation of China’s one-child rule into a two-child rule in 2016 was heralded as a victory by most who criticized the original policy, but it has had an unfortunate consequence: Some employers now see hiring women as a greater risk.

Waiting in line

In 2016, a teacher surnamed Zhang in central China’s Henan province also wanted to have a second child, months after the one-child rule was changed. But when she became pregnant, her school principal pointed out a clause written clearly in her contract: Women must schedule their pregnancy so it doesn’t conflict with another employee’s maternity leave.

Zhang’s story featured in an expose by the China News Service, whose reporters interviewed school administrators and county officials, all of whom defended the policy. The report prompted the spread of a hashtag which circulated on Weibo that roughly translates to “waiting in line to get pregnant.”

The same year, a nurse in Dongguan, near Guangzhou, was fined for jumping her spot at her hospital ward’s queue, according to Southern Metropolis Daily.

And as recently as last month, an employee at a major commercial bank in the northern city of Shijiazhuang was asked to choose between her job and her baby, Chinese newspaper Workers Daily reported.

A 2018 Human Rights Watch report on women in the labor market suggests workplace discrimination against mothers has actually increased in the era of the two-child rule. The report noted job ads nationwide were advertising for “married women with children.” In these ads, potential employers target women who are done with their childbearing years — thus avoiding the cost of maternity leave.

The report found that 75 % of companies that responded to a poll on job search site said they would be more hesitant to hire female employees after the new policy came into effect.


A pregnant teacher gives a class to her students on May 17 in Dongguan, South China’s Guangdong province. Photo: VCG

Women at work

On paper, China is a great place to be a working woman. Gender discrimination — inside and outside the professional sphere – is against the law. China also guarantees maternity leave of 98 days — though the period is longer in some provinces, and up to 190 days in Henan province. (China does not offer paternity leave.)

And yet, while nearly 70% of countries have narrowed the economic gender gap over the past decade, China’s gap actually widened over the same period, a WEF spokesperson told Caixin.

“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,’” Yue Qian, assistant professor of sociology at

the University of British Columbia, tells Caixin, referencing Chairman Mao’s oft-parroted slogan on gender quality.

“Ironically, in recent decades, the state has withdrawn from welfare provisioning and its egalitarian gender ideology has become muted.”

Though it may seem contradictory, under the one-child rule, women’s rights were heralded even while their reproductive decisions were being controlled. This is partly due to the fact that more families were giving birth to only children that were female. Slogans such as, “Daughters also carry on the family line” and “It is all the same whether you give birth to a boy or give birth to a girl,” were featured in propaganda until the 1980s, sinologist Manya Koetse notes.

While today’s women are free to have more children, China generally does not offer policies besides maternity leave to support them.

“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,” Qian says. “Given the lack of family-friendly policies and the government’s inattention to gender equality, mothers’ employment rates and earnings increasingly lag behind those of fathers.”

Despite Beijing’s efforts to promote more births, China’s birthrate is slipping. The fertility rate fell from 1.295 births per women in 2016 to 1.243 in 2017, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. And the birthrate is predicted to fall for the third year straight in 2019, the China Population Association announced in October.

Qian says more empirical data is needed to say for sure whether gender inequality in the labor market has been worsened by advent of the two-child rule. But she concludes: “Given the lack of family-friendly policies and the government’s inattention to gender equality, mothers’ employment rates and earnings increasingly lag behind those of fathers.”

Contact reporter Noelle Mateer (

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