Norwegians are very proud of the fact that they always score on top of the world in terms of gender equality[i]. Women in general have more freedom in choosing what they want to do and who they want to be with than women in many other countries in the world. Women’s participation in the labor force is high. It had a female prime minister and is having another one right now, and so on. On the other side, people tend to think Chinese women are miserable. It is always in the news outside China that pregnant women in China take abortion once they know it is a girl. However, as a woman from Shanghai who has lived in Oslo for almost a decade, I think both these two pictures are over simplifying the situations and to guarantee equal treatments of two genders in work places is far more complicated than any current policies can take care of.
Let’s start with the Norwegian picture and see away from the nice statistics Norwegians provide. Three phenomena send out different voices. First, Norwegian women has much higher rate of sick leave than men and this gap is even increasing. This recently raised attention in the media and one of the highly likely explanations people come up with is: women take more share of the house work, still! Second, woman on average earn 85% of the salary as man in the same position earns even though it is written in the law that employees should not be discriminated by gender. This might be the result from that women are not very affirmative in salary negotiations and in work in general. So solutions from experts are: work like a man. Third, even with the famous gender quota requirement in board rooms in public companies, very few women are in top management positions, even fewer than in the U.S. where there is no such quota rule[ii] and worse still, Norwegian research shows that female leaders won’t help female employees[iii]. A few days ago, I had a chance to visit the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. Its walls are covered with portraits of prominent people in the Norwegian shipping industry. Among dozens of portraits, only one is of a woman and she has the only one that does not have the golden frame.
Having been quite disheartened by the situation in Norway, I try to think back how things are in China. However, China is a huge country with very different cultures and unbalanced development. In general, Chinese women are so miserable as CNN tries to depict and Shanghainese woman are famous for being the boss at home.
There are many reasons for this. Historically, during the war time, the communist party needed soldiers, so female soldiers were and common. After 1949 when PRC was founded, again men and women were needed in building the new country. Mao has made the well-known quote that “women hold up half the sky”. As for Shanghai, which has always been a trading center rather than a manufacturing city where men are needed to do the heavy manual work. Women’s social status, as well as participation in job market, has always been high.
Politically, the one-child policy in China, at least in big cities like Shanghai, wiped out the boys’ privileged status in families. Since every family has only one child, the family has to put all its resources to that child regardless it is a boy or girl. In schools, if the girl is not treated same as a boy, the girl’s family will not let the school have an easy time since this is their only child.
Culturally, Shanghai is one of the first Chinese cities to open to the Western world. Men from Shanghai were told to be a “gentleman” by doing all the housework. Men give their salary to their wives and their wives decide what to buy for the family and return a small amount as pocket money to their men.
In all the schools I have been to in Shanghai, girls perform far better than boys. I studied economics in the best university in Shanghai. There were 120 students in the program, gender ratio being 1:1. At the end of the 4 years study, among the top 20 students, there was only one boy.
Does this support the argument that Shanghai beats Oslo in terms of gender equality? No. School is one thing and society at large is another. A few years after university, girls are in the new competition of who gets married first, who marries a trophy husband, who gets baby in an expensive private clinic first… Those boys who did not do every well in school, spent time thinking what they really want in life and went for it. Today, the richest or the most powerful people in China, or even in Shanghai, are still men.
Surprisingly, same could almost be said for Norway or Oslo. Norwegian women don’t care so much about marriage (cohabitation is a legal status in Norway with cleared defined rights close to marriage), but they care no less than Chinese women about men. In gyms, you can see girls immediately put on make-up once they are done with training and they spend long hours on their image as if a slightest mistake will cost them their boyfriend. In the freezing cold winger days, when Norwegian men are fully covered, Norwegian women are still wearing short skirts and walking on ice with high-heel shoes. In work places, women join men in jokes about sex like a man. Since I started working in shipping a couple of years ago, all jokes I heard at formal work-related dinners are directly about sex. Women might talk about what kind of men they want while men go directly to the topic. It is not my Chinese background that makes me uncomfortable, but it is the repeated jokes that made me bored.
In my attempt to understand these, I come to realize that even though Shanghai and Oslo are very different cities, behind those superficial observations, there are fundamental similarities and they come from our similar natures as human beings.
I see gender inequality has different levels and affects societies and human behaviors in different ways. It is first and foremost physical. Even among the siblings of the same parents, boys are bigger and stronger than girls. So it is hard to deny the physical difference between men and women. In places or jobs where physical strength is important, woman looks up to man for that. Neither Shanghai nor Oslo is at this stage. Secondly, two genders also differ in other important qualities which matter in modern world, such as intelligence and determination. Research has suggested that though the difference in average intelligence between genders is negligible, man’s intelligence has larger variance[iv] which means that the super smart and super stupid are more likely to be man. This might explain the fact that the greatest scientists in history are mostly men and in today’s academic world, more top researchers in science are men. However, most business jobs today, even at top management positions, don’t require top intelligence. In my view, it is the determination that plays a role. Women are more sensitive to small things in life and less determined to march to the final goal. Thirdly, the gender inequality is also biological. The hormones released during sex makes women feel attached to men while bring men pure enjoyment. This is why women in any culture care more about relationships than men in the same culture. Besides, during pregnancy and child-birth, hormones again make women feel more responsibility for their babies and consequently, care more about their family. Inevitably, the calculation between job and family is never the same for man and woman.
For the last two reasons, and maybe many other reasons, it is not simple to guarantee gender equality in work places. Companies can make arrangements to take care of employee’s human side (e.g. some Chinese companies offer days off or flexible days for woman during menstruation) , but absolute gender equality is not possible given our biological and psychological differences. It might actually be easier not to force gender equality like the quota system Norway used, but to understand the differences, to foster strengths and to circumvent weaknesses. And sometime, to be creative.