Over the last four decades, as China has transitioned from a socialist centralized economy to a productivity-and-efficiency-oriented market economy, so too have the country’s public and private spheres become increasingly differentiated. Although others attribute changing gender inequality to the market transition, we draw from Chinese feminist critical analyses and propose a theoretical framework regarding how the two-sphere separation in contemporary China, embedded in how gender equality was organized in the socialist time, has been driven by the state and is further justified by changing gender ideologies. We review the existing literature and identify gaps in research on how women’s disadvantages in the public and private spheres—in the labor market and within the family—mutually reinforce each other in post-reform urban China. We also discuss how the dynamics of, and interactions between, the two spheres are justified by a changing gender ideology. Finally, by exploring gender inequality in the process of the two-sphere separation in a transitional context, we make an important contribution to the general sociological and gender literature.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Andors, P. (1983). The unfinished liberation of Chinese women, 1949–1980. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Appleton, S., Knight, J., Song, L., & Xia, Q. (2002). Labor retrenchment in China: Determinants and consequences. China Economic Review, 13(2), 252–275. doi:10.1016/s1043-951x(02)00067-6.
Appleton, S., Song, L., & Xia, Q. (2005). Has China crossed the river? The evolution of wage structure in urban China during reform and retrenchment. Journal of Comparative Economics, 33(4), 644–663. doi:10.1016/j.jce.2005.08.005.
Attané, I. (2012). Being a woman in China today: A demography of gender. China Perspectives, 4, 5–15.
Bian, Y., & Logan, J. R. (1996). Market transition and the persistence of power: The changing stratification system in urban China. American Sociological Review, 61(5), 739–758. doi:10.2307/2096451.
Budig, M. J., & England, P. (2001). The wage penalty for motherhood. American Sociological Review, 66, 204–225. doi:10.2307/2657415.
Chen, F. (2005). Employment transitions and the household division of labor in China. Social Forces, 84(2), 831–851. doi:10.1353/sof.2006.0010.
Chen, Z., Ge, Y., Lai, H., & Wan, C. (2013). Globalization and gender wage inequality in China. World Development, 44, 256–266. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2012.11.007.
Chi, W., & Li, B. (2008). Glass ceiling or sticky floor? Examining the gender earnings differential across the earnings distribution in urban China, 1987–2004. Journal of Comparative Economics, 36(2), 243–263. doi:10.1016/j.jce.2007.12.001.
Chi, W., & Li, B. (2014). Trends in China’s gender employment and pay gap: Estimating gender pay gaps with employment selection. Journal of Comparative Economics, 42(3), 708–725. doi:10.1016/j.jce.2013.06.008.
Cohen, P. N., & Wang, F. (2009). Market and gender pay equity: Have Chinese reforms narrowed the gap? In D. Davis & F. Wang (Eds.), Creating wealth and poverty in postsocialist China (pp. 37–53). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Cook, S., & Dong, X. Y. (2011). Harsh choices: Chinese women’s paid work and unpaid care responsibilities under economic reform. Development and Change, 42(4), 947–965. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7660.2011.01721.x.
Croll, E. J. (1995). Changing identities of Chinese women: Rhetoric, experience and self-perception in twentieth-century China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Croll, E., & Croll, E. J. (1981). The politics of marriage in contemporary China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Desai, S., & Waite, L. (1991). Women’s employment during pregnancy and after the first birth: Occupational characteristics and work commitment. American Sociological Review, 56(4), 551–566. doi:10.2307/2096274.
Ding, S., Dong, X. Y., & Li, S. (2009). Women’s employment and family income inequality during China’s economic transition. Feminist Economics, 15(3), 163–190. doi:10.1080/13545700802526541.
DiPrete, T. A., & McManus, P. A. (2000). Family change, employment transitions, and the welfare state: Household income dynamics in the United States and Germany. American Sociological Review, 65(3), 343–370. doi:10.2307/2657461.
Dong, X., & An, X. (2015). Gender patterns and value of unpaid care work: Findings from China’s first large-scale time use survey. Review of Income and Wealth, 61(3), 540–560. doi:10.1111/roiw.12119.
Dong, X., & Pandey, M. (2012). Gender and labor retrenchment in Chinese state-owned enterprises: Investigating using firm-level panel data. China Economic Review, 23(2), 385–395. doi:10.1016/j.chieco.2012.02.006.
Dong, X., & Zhang, L. (2009). Economic transition and gender differentials in wages and productivity: Evidence from Chinese manufacturing enterprises. Journal of Development Economics, 88(1), 144–156. doi:10.1016/j.jdeveco.2008.02.006.
Dong, X., Yang, J., Du, F., & Ding, S. (2006). Women’s employment and public-sector restructuring: The case of urban China. In G. Lee & M. Warner (Eds.), Unemployment in China: Economy, human resources and labor markets (pp. 87–107). London: Routledge.
Du, F., & Dong, X. Y. (2009). Why do women have longer durations of unemployment than men in post-restructuring urban China? Cambridge Journal of Economics, 33(2), 233–252. doi:10.1093/cje/ben034.
Du, F., & Dong, X. Y. (2013). Women’s employment and child care choices in urban China during the economic transition. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 62(1), 131–155. doi:10.1086/671714.
Engels, F. (1978). The origin of the family, private property and the state (exerpt). In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader (pp. 734–759). New York: Norton.
England, P. (1992). Comparable worth: Theories and evidence. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
England, P. (2010). The gender revolution: Uneven and stalled. Gender & Society, 24(2), 149–166. doi:10.1177/0891243210361475.
England, P., Farkas, G., Kilbourne, B. S., & Dou, T. (1988). Explaining occupational sex segregation and wages: Findings from a model with fixed effects. American Sociological Review, 53(4), 544–558. doi:10.2307/2095848.
Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Federici, S. (2012). Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle. Oakland: PM Press.
Fincher, L. H. (2014). Leftover women: The resurgence of gender inequality in China. London: Zed Books.
Fraser, N. (1994). After the family wage: Gender equity and the welfare state. Political Theory, 22(4), 591–618. doi:10.1177/0090591794022004003.
Giles, J., Park, A., & Cai, F. (2006). How has economic restructuring affected China’s urban workers? The China Quarterly, 185, 61–95. doi:10.1017/s0305741006000051.
Gornick, J. C., & Jacobs, J. A. (1998). Gender, the welfare state, and public employment: A comparative study of seven industrialized countries (in comparative studies of the welfare state). American Sociological Review, 63(5), 688–710. doi:10.2307/2657334.
Guo, J., & Xiao, S. (2013). Through the gender lens: A comparison of family policy in Sweden and China. China Journal of Social Work, 6(3), 228–243. doi:10.1080/17525098.2013.840663.
Gustafsson, B., & Li, S. (2000). Economic transformation and the gender earnings gap in urban China. Journal of Population Economics, 13(2), 305–329. doi:10.1007/s001480050140.
Hartmann, H. (1976). Capitalism, patriarchy and job segregation. In M. Blaxall & B. Reagan (Eds.), Women and the workplace: The implications of occupational segregation (pp. 137–169). Chicago: Chicago University Press.
He, G., & Wu, X. (2015). Marketization, economic development and gender earnings inequality in urban China. Sociological Studies, 2, 140–165 (In Chinese).
He, G., & Wu, X. (2016). Converging divergences: Gendered patterns of career mobility in urban China’s economic transition. Unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/pdf/rr16-875.pdf.
He, G., & Wu, X. (2017). Marketization, occupational segregation, and gender earnings inequality in urban China. Social Science Research. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2016.12.001.
Hershatter, G. (2003). Making the visible invisible: The fate of “the private” in revolutionary China. In F. Lu (Ed.), Wusheng zhi sheng (I): jindai Zhongguo de funü yu guojia (1600–1950) voices amid silence (I): Women and the nation in modern China (1600–1950) (pp. 257–281). Taipei: Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica.
Hochschild, A., & Machung, A. (2012). The second shift: Working families and the revolution at home. London: Penguin Books.
Honig, E., & Hershatter, G. (1988). Personal voices: Chinese women in the 1980’s. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hooper, B. (1998). ‘flower vase and housewife’: Women and consumerism in post-Mao China. In K. Sen & M. Stivens (Eds.), Gender and power in affluent Asia (pp. 167–196). London: Routledge.
Hughes, J., & Maurer-Fazio, M. (2002). Effects of marriage, education and occupation on the female/male wage gap in China. Pacific Economic Review, 7(1), 137–156. doi:10.1111/1468-0106.00156.
Ji, Y. (2015a). Asian families at the crossroads: A meeting of east, west, tradition, modernity and gender. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(5), 1031–1038. doi:10.1111/jomf.12223.
Ji, Y. (2015b). Between tradition and modernity: “leftover” women in shanghai. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(5), 1057–1073. doi:10.1111/jomf.12220.
Ji, Y., & Chen, F. (2015). An asymmetrical gender revolution: Five cohorts of dynamics of gender role ideology in China. San Diego: Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America.
Ji, Y., & Yeung, W. J. J. (2014). Heterogeneity in contemporary Chinese marriage. Journal of Family Issues, 35(12), 1662–1682. doi:10.1177/0192513x14538030.
Jia, N., & Dong, X. Y. (2013). Economic transition and the motherhood wage penalty in urban China: Investigation using panel data. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 37(4), 819–843. doi:10.1093/cje/bes044.
Jin, Y. (2000). The formation of informal labor market and women’s employment. Collection of Women’s Studies, 3, 16–18 (in Chinese).
Jin, Y. (2006a). Women’s informal employment: Current situation and solutions. Journal of Hehai University (Philosophy and Social Sciences), 8(1), 6–10 (in Chinese).
Jin, Y. (2006b). “iron girls” revisited—Social gender and work during China’s cultural revolution. Sociological Studies, 1, 169–198 (in Chinese).
Jin, Y., Manning, K. E., & Chu, L. (2006). Rethinking the ‘iron girls’: Gender and labour during the Chinese cultural revolution. Gender & History, 18(3), 613–634. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2006.00458.x.
Jurajda, Š. (2003). Gender wage gap and segregation in enterprises and the public sector in late transition countries. Journal of Comparative Economics, 31(2), 199–222. doi:10.1016/s0147-5967(03)00040-4.
Kim, S. W., Fong, V. L., Yoshikawa, H., Way, N., Chen, X., Deng, H., & Lu, Z. (2010). Income, work preferences and gender roles among parents of infants in urban China: A mixed method study from Nanjing. The China Quarterly, 204, 939–959. doi:10.1017/s0305741010001037.
Li, L., & Dong, X. Y. (2011). Economic transition and the gender earnings gap in Chinese industry: The role of firm characteristics. Contemporary Economic Policy, 29(1), 67–87. doi:10.1111/j.1465-7287.2010.00195.x.
Li, S., & Ma, X. (2006). Empirical study on gender wage differentials and occupation segregation for urban workers in China. Chinese Journal of Population Science, 5, 2–13 (in Chinese).
Li, W., & Xie, Y. (2015). Trends in occupational gender segregation in China, 1982–2010. Chinese Journal of Sociology, 6, 153–177 (in Chinese). doi:10.15992/j.cnki.31–1123/c.2015.06.007.
Liu, A., Tong, X., & Fu, W. (2015). Household division of housework for double-income family: Economic dependence, gender ideologies, or emotional express. Chinese Journal of Sociology, 2(35), 109–136 (in Chinese). doi:10.15992/j.cnki.31–1123/c.2015.02.006.
Marini, M. M., & Fan, P. L. (1997). The gender gap in earnings at career entry. American Sociological Review, 62, 588–604. doi:10.2307/2657428.
Matthews, R., & Nee, V. (2000). Gender inequality and economic growth in rural China. Social Science Research, 29(4), 606–632. doi:10.1006/ssre.2000.0684.
Maurer-Fazio, M., & Hughes, J. (2002). The effects of market liberalization on the relative earnings of Chinese women. Journal of Comparative Economics, 30(4), 709–731. doi:10.1006/jcec.2002.1802.
Mu, Z., & Xie, Y. (2014). Marital age homogamy in China: A reversal of trend in the reform era? Social Science Research, 44, 141–157. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2013.11.005.
Mu, Z., & Xie, Y. (2016). “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood premium”? Fertility effects on parents in China. Demographic Research, 35, 1373–1410. doi:10.4054/demres.2016.35.47.
Nee, V. (1989). A theory of market transition: From redistribution to markets in state socialism. American Sociological Review, 54, 663–681. doi:10.2307/2117747.
Ng, Y. C. (2006). Gender earnings differentials and regional economic development in urban China, 1988–97. Review of Income and Wealth, 53(1), 148–166. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4991.2007.00221.x.
Ogloblin, C. G. (1999). The gender earnings differential in the Russian transition economy. Industrial Relations and Labor, 52(4), 602–627. doi:10.2307/2525066.
Orloff, A. (1996). Gender in the welfare state. Annual Review of Sociology, 22(1), 51–78. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.22.1.5.
Parish, W. L., & Busse, S. (2000). Gender and work. In W. Tang & W. L. Parish (Eds.), Chinese urban life under reform (pp. 209–231). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peng, K. Z., Ngo, H. Y., Shi, J., & Wong, C. S. (2009). Gender differences in the work commitment of Chinese workers: An investigatio n of two alternative explanations. Journal of World Business, 44(3), 323–335. doi:10.1016/j.jwb.2008.08.003.
Pimentel, E. E. (2006). Gender ideology, household behavior, and backlash in urban China. Journal of Family Issues, 27(3), 341–365. doi:10.1177/0192513x05283507.
Rofel, L. (1999). Other modernities: Gendered yearnings in China after socialism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Rofel, L. (2007). Desiring China: Experiments in neoliberalism, sexuality, and public culture. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Shaffer, M. A., Joplin, J. R., Bell, M. P., Lau, T., & Oguz, C. (2000). Gender discrimination and job-related outcomes: A cross-cultural comparison of working women in the United States and China. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 57(3), 395–427. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1999.1748.
Shu, X. (2005). Market transition and gender segregation in urban China. Social Science Quarterly, 86(s1), 1299–1323. doi:10.1111/j.0038-4941.2005.00347.x.
Shu, X., & Bian, Y. (2003). Market transition and gender gap in earnings in urban China. Social Forces, 81(4), 1107–1145. doi:10.1353/sof.2003.0070.
Shu, X., & Zhu, Y. (2012). Uneven transitions: Period- and cohort-related changes in gender attitudes in China, 1995–2007. Social Science Research, 41(5), 1100–1115. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.05.004.
Song, S. (2011a). Retreating back home willingly or being unwillingly sent home? Debates on “women-going-home” and the ideological transformation in the course of marketization in China. Collection of Women’s Studies, 4, 5–12 (in Chinese).
Song, S. (2011b). The private embedded in the public: The state’s discourse on domestic work, 1949–1966. Research on Women in Modern Chinese History, 19, 131–172 (in Chinese).
Song, S. (2012). From visible to invisible: Housework in the collectivist period (1949–1966).Jiangsu Social Sciences, 1, 116–125 (in Chinese). doi:10.13858/j.cnki.cn32-1312/c.2012.01.033.
Stockman, N. (1994). Gender inequality and social structure in urban China. Sociology, 28(3), 759–777. doi:10.1177/0038038594028003007.
Summerfield, G. (1994). Economic reform and the employment of Chinese women. Journal of Economic Issues, 28(3), 715–732. doi:10.1080/00213624.1994.11505579.
Sun, S., & Chen, F. (2015). Reprivatized womanhood: Changes in mainstream media’s framing of urban women’s issues in China, 1995-2012. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(5), 1091–1107. doi:10.1111/jomf.12219.
Taniguchi, H., & Rosenfeld, R. A. (2002). Women’s employment exit and reentry: Differences among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Social Science Research, 31(3), 432–471. doi:10.1016/s0049-089x(02)00009-1.
Tong, X. (2008). China’s women/gender sociology in the past 30 years 30. Collection of Women’s Studies, 3, 66–74 (in Chinese).
Tong, X., & Liu, A. (2015). A model of conjugal cooperation in housework for urban dual-career couples – Based on the third survey of women’s status in China (2010). Social Science in China, 6, 96–111 (in Chinese).
Van der Lippe, T., & Van Dijk, L. (2002). Comparative research on women’s employment. Annual Review of Sociology, 28(1), 221–241. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.28.110601.140833.
Walder, A. G. (1995). Career mobility and the communist political order. American Sociological Review, 60(3), 309–328. doi:10.2307/2096416.
Waldfogel, J. (1997). The effect of children on women’s wages. American Sociological Review, 62(2), 209–217. doi:10.2307/2657300.
Waldfogel, J. (1998). The family gap for young women in the United States and Britain: Can maternity leave make a difference? Journal of Labor Economics, 16(3), 505–545. doi:10.1086/209897.
Wang, Z. (1997). Distinguishing “female consciousness” from social gender consciousness. Collection of Women’s Studies, 1, 14–20 (in Chinese).
Wang, T., Lai, Y., & Li, B. (2008). Gender income gap under redistribution and its evolution: 1995-2003. Sociological Studies, 2, 23–53 (in Chinese).
Whyte, M. K., & Parish, W. L. (1985). Urban life in contemporary China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wolf, M. (1985). Revolution postponed: Women in contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Wu, X. (2009). Gender discourse transformation in the background of marketization. Social Sciences in China, 2, 163–176 (in Chinese).
Wu, X. (2010). Voluntary and involuntary job mobility and earnings inequality in urban China, 1993-2000. Social Science Research, 39, 382–395. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2009.11.003.
Wu, X., & Zhang, Z. (2010). Changes in educational inequality in China, 1990-2005: Evidence from the population census data. Research in Sociology of Education, 17, 123–152. doi:10.1108/s1479-3539(2010)0000017007.
Wu, Y., & Zhou, D. (2015). Women’s labor force participation in urban China, 1990–2010. Chinese Sociological Review, 47(4), 314–342. doi:10.1080/21620555.2015.1036234.
Xie, Y. (2013). Gender and family in contemporary China. Retrieved from www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/pdf/rr13-808.pdf.
Xiu, L., & Gunderson, M. (2015). Occupational segregation and the gender earnings gap in China: Devils in the details. International Journal of Manpower, 36(5), 711–732. doi:10.1108/ijm-03-2013-0047.
Yang, M. M. H. (1999). From gender erasure to gender difference: State feminism, consumer sexuality, and women’s public sphere in China. In M. M. H. Yang (Ed.), Spaces of their own: Women’s public sphere in transnational China (pp. 35–67). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Yang, J. (2006). Investigation on gender boundaries from the perspective of household labor division. Collection of Women’s Studies, 75(5), 16–22 (in Chinese).
Yang, J. (2016, February 16). Continuities and changes: Twenty years of gender ideology (p. B02). China Women’s News (in Chinese).
Yee, J. (2001). Women’s changing roles in the Chinese economy. The Journal of Economics, 27(2), 55–67.
Yeung, W. J. J. (2013). Higher education expansion and social stratification in China. Chinese Sociological Review, 45(4), 54–80. doi:10.2753/csa2162-0555450403.
Yu, J., & Xie, Y. (2011). The varying display of “gender display”: A comparative study of mainland China and Taiwan. Chinese Sociological Review, 44(2), 5–30. doi:10.2753/csa2162-0555440201.
Yu, J., & Xie, Y. (2014). The effect of fertility on women’s wages in China. Population Research., 38(1), 18–29 (in Chinese).
Yu, J., & Xie, Y. (2016). Motherhood penalties and living arrangements in China. Paper presented at the 2016 Population Association of America, Washington, D.C.
Zhang, D. (2004). Marketization and gender wage differentials. Population Science of China, 1, 32–41 (in Chinese).
Zhang, Q. F. (2013). Gender disparities in self-employment in urban China’s market transition: Income inequality, occupational segregation and mobility processes. The China Quarterly, 215, 744–763. doi:10.1017/s030574101300074x.
Zhang, L., & Dong, X. (2008). Male-female wage discrimination in Chinese industry. The Economics of Transition, 16(1), 85–112. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0351.2007.00317.x.
Zhang, Y., & Hannum, E. (2015). Diverging fortunes: The evolution of gender wage gaps for singles, couples, and parents in China, 1989–2009. Chinese Journal of Sociology, 1(1), 15–55. doi:10.1177/2057150x14568769.
Zhang, J., Han, J., Liu, P. W., & Zhao, Y. (2008a). Trends in the gender earnings differential in urban China, 1988–2004. Industrial & Labor Relations Review, 61(2), 224–243. doi:10.1177/001979390806100205.
Zhang, Y., Hannum, E., & Wang, M. (2008b). Gender-based employment and income differences in urban China: Considering the contributions of marriage and parenthood. Social Forces, 86(4), 1529–1560. doi:10.1353/sof.0.0035.
Zheng, Y. (1994). Sociological contemplation on gender equity. Sociological Studies, 2, 108–113 (in Chinese).
Zhou, X., & Moen, P. (2001). Explaining life chances in China’s economic transformation: A life course approach. Social Science Research, 30, 552–577. doi:10.1006/ssre.2001.0707.
Zuo, J. (2003). From revolutionary comrades to gendered partners: Marital construction of breadwinning in urban China. Journal of Family Issues, 24, 314–337. doi:10.1177/0192513x02250888.
Zuo, J. (2005). Women’s liberation and gender equality in the 50s in the 20th century: Chinese urban couples’ experience and perception. Chinese Journal of Sociology, 1, 182–209 (in Chinese). doi:10.15992/j.cnki.31-1123/c.2005.01.011.
Zuo, J. (2013). Women’s liberation and gender obligation equality in urban China: Work/family experiences of married individuals the 1950s. Science & Society, 77(1), 98–125. doi:10.1521/siso.2013.77.1.98.
Zuo, J., & Bian, Y. (2001). Gendered resources, division of housework, and perceived fairness—A case in urban China. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1122–1133. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.01122.x.
Zuo, J., & Jiang, Y. (2009). Urban women’s work and family in social transition. Beijing: Contemporary China Publishing House (in Chinese).
Research for the present paper was supported by the Program for Professor of Special Appointment (Eastern Scholar) at the Shanghai Institutions of Higher Learning (No. TP2015032), and the Key Project by the National Social Science Foundation of China (15AZD080).
Guangye He would like to thank a Post-doctoral Fellowship Matching Fund (PDF) from Office of Vice President for Research & Graduate Studies, HKUST. Xiaogang Wu would like to thank the RGC for financial support from the General Research Fund (GRF 16600117).
Special thanks go to Prof. Suowei Xiao at the Beijing Normal University, Prof. Yihong Jin at the Nanjing Normal University, and Prof. Feinian Chen at the University of Maryland, College Park.
About this article
Cite this article
Ji, Y., Wu, X., Sun, S. et al. Unequal Care, Unequal Work: Toward a more Comprehensive Understanding of Gender Inequality in Post-Reform Urban China. Sex Roles 77, 765–778 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0751-1
- Public and private spheres
- Gender inequality
- Labor market
- Motherhood penalty
- Gender ideology