Taiwan has achieved a certain level of gender equality, unlike other countries in East Asia: the latest Global Gender Gap Report indicated that China ranked 102nd, South Korea ranked 99th, and Japan ranked 116th out of 146 countries in this regard. However, Taiwan would be listed in 33rd place if ranked according to the method that the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report applies [1, 2]. Taiwan would also be ranked sixth in the world according to the Gender Inequality Index of the United Nations Development Programme [3]. These results are the best of any Asian country and are not inferior to the situation in Western and Northern Europe. Taiwan currently has a female president; the proportion of female MPs (Legislative Yuan of the Republic of China) is 41.59%; and the share of female managers is around 30%: these data show that a certain level of gender equality has been achieved. Nevertheless, Taiwan has an ultra-low fertility rate that has recovered slightly from the lowest value of 0.895 in 2010, but was still 1.05 in 2019 [4]. According to McDonald, the reason for this low fertility is the gap between gender equality in the public sphere and gender inequality in the private sphere. It has been claimed that the structural transformation of a society into one in which gender equity exists is the key to fertility policy [5,6,7]. Esping-Andersen claims that persistent gender inequality is perhaps the single factor that best explains low fertility rates, affirming McDonald’s argument [8]. However, Taiwan ranks high on the gender equality index, as noted above. In contrast, the Nordic countries and parts of Western Europe, the gender situation of which in terms of rankings is similar to that of Taiwan’s, sustain relatively moderate fertility rates: the TFR of Sweden and Denmark is around 1.7, which is still high compared to in ultra-low fertility rate countries [9]. Esping-Andersen also points out that moving away from dependence on the family (i.e., on women) for housework and childcare (through welfare provision) would halt the drop in the fertility rate. These theories have mainly been conceptualized through the experiences of the Nordic countries where a high level of gender equality and family-friendly policies coexist: they may also, however, be applied to the case of East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea where gender inequality is high but fertility is low—but not to Taiwan. It is not the case that Taiwanese women do not want children: women of all ages between 20 and 70 are in favor of having two children on average [10]. This suggests that there is a gap between their willingness to create a family and the actual situation; unlike in Europe, childbirth outside marriage is rare in East Asia, including in Taiwan; hence, the marriage rate directly affects the number of newborn babies [11]. This also implies that while the data on gender equality in Taiwan are similar to those for Western/Northern Europe, the reality for Taiwanese women does not reflect this, as MacDonald has theorized.

The paper is guided by these ideas; correspondingly, the research question is the following:

  • To what extent do ideas about traditional gender roles affect Taiwanese women’s perceptions of getting married and having children?

Although Taiwan is located in a traditionally Confucian area, the origins of Confucianism date back to BC, and it is difficult to define what Confucianism means in today’s Taiwan, which has undergone industrialization and modernization. Taiwan is home to many believers in folk religions, as well as Taoists, Buddhists, and Christians, and these diverse religions coexist in harmony [12]. However, with regard to the role of women in the family, especially that of the daughter-in-law after marriage, and her relationship with her in-laws and their image of her, this is influenced by Confucian ideas about patriarchy: for example, even though the law defines the sexes as equal, males’ inheritance rights are implicitly stronger, and women are expected to clean up/cook and serve/entertain at gatherings of (patrilineal) relatives during events such as Chinese New Year and the Dragon Festival [13]. Therefore, the term “traditional gender roles for females” in this paper is used to refer to stereotypical female roles, including undertaking housework, childcare, and caregiving, which are often expected of women within the family, as well as by our respondents who feel that because they are women they must play a traditional role.

To accomplish the aim of the research, semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 43 women aged 30–40 years, especially those educated to at least university level who are most likely to enjoy gender equality and are of the typical age for marriage and childrearing. The semi-structured interviews focused on their experiences and perceptions and analyzed the environment in which they grew up, the employment systems at the companies they worked for, and their relationships with their families (including partners and in-laws) using reflective thematic analysis. These 43 interviewees were classified into four groups (“married, has a child/ren,” “married, no children,” “unmarried, has partner,” and “single”), and differences among them were explored. The first section of the paper contains the contextual background, and then follows a description of the method and data collection. A discussion and conclusion bring the paper to a close.

Contextual Background

Taiwan has been modernizing rapidly since it was democratized in the 1980s and has experienced a rapid decline in the fertility rate compared to that in Western countries and Japan [14, 15]. The background to this is the higher level of education of women, the rise in the labor market participation of women, and late marriage. However, this tendency is seen not only in Taiwan, but in many countries that have experienced economic growth: nonetheless, the total fertility rates of countries with high levels of gender equality, such as those in Northern Europe, have been sustained or recovered. Chang and Ochiai used the terms “compressed modernity” and “semi-compressed modernity” to explain that this low fertility rate in East Asia is partly due to the rapid modernization of the region compared to the situation in Europe [15, 16]. According to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, widely known for its indexing of social and national characteristics by country, Taiwan and South Korea have in common a feminine society that is collectivist, seeks quality of life rather than achievement, and values solidarity [17]. However, the more one searches for commonalities in the societies of East Asia, the more one wonders why Taiwan’s gender equality rate is so high, yet the TFR is extremely low.

As mentioned above, at first glance, Taiwan seems to have a relatively high level of gender equality, and the Taiwan government openly declares that its society is advanced in terms of gender equality. Taiwanese media also widely report, including in English, that Taiwan is number one in Asia for gender equality [18, 19]. However, the combination of the world’s lowest fertility rate with an outstanding equality index compared to other East Asian countries is unique and suggests that invisible factors related to gender issues are involved. In other words, one may assume that there are hidden sources of inequality rooted in society that do not appear in the data. This suggests that measurable data such as those about education and labor market participation are not significantly differentiated by sex, yet that women enjoy equality: however, societal expectations about women as wives, mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law involve so-called gender roles in the family that may not give them equivalence with men. Accordingly, Taiwanese society superficially seems to have achieved a certain level of gender equality, but in the private sphere (where women normally have responsibility for caring duties, etc.), the situation may be as unequal as in other East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. One source of gender imbalance involves unpaid work: in a survey from 2006, wives in Taiwan were found to be responsible for more than 70% of household chores, and this figure was almost the same in dual-income households. There was no change in the data in the 2017 survey: the time husbands spent on housework amounted to less than one-third the time spent by their wives [20]. This is because married women are responsible for the “second shift”—housework and childcare at home—in addition to the first shift: wage labor.

Hochschild, who coined the term the “second shift,” called men’s lack of participation in family work despite the increase in women’s participation in the labor market a “stalled revolution” [21]. Esping-Andersen has also argued that policies by which families are made responsible for both earning an income and sharing caring duties are liable to have the undesirable consequence of creating low fertility rates or impoverishing families [8]. According to the data, however, Taiwanese married men do not appear to significantly participate in the work associated with their families, and the Taiwanese government has not put much effort into creating welfare services, relying instead on family members [22, 23]. In light of the above, it can be hypothesized that the current situation in Taiwan is the result of the difference in gender equality in the public and private spheres, and heavy workloads of women associated with family-related duties. This has led to a decline in the marriage rate and fertility rate because women who appear to enjoy equality in fact avoid fulfilling traditional roles in the private sphere. It is particularly highly educated women who enjoy gender equality in public who may not wish to lose their status by becoming wives or mothers after marriage (even if they wish to get married, they may give up on doing so for this reason). To examine this hypothesis, semi-structured interviews were conducted, the results of which are described in the following sections.


Interview Participants

Since the admission rate to university of women in Taiwan exceeded 80% in 2005, and because it is predicted that the current and future majority of females will be highly educated, I targeted women aged between 30 and 40 who hold BA degrees or higher, as it is important to clarify how members of this age group imagine planning a family together with a career. Individuals in this age group are also most liable to get married and have children; thus, the cohort is suitable for use in addressing the research question. To recruit participants, an advertisement for the research was posted on social networks. I contacted those potential interviewees who filled out the questionnaire. If they replied and agreed to give an interview, we arranged a date and time. The snowball sample method was also used, so interviewees introduced other potential interviewees. A total of 43 interviewees participated.

The interviewees were classified into four categories; married, has child/ren (n=9); married, no child (n=9); unmarried, has partner (n=12); and single (n=13) as the main goal was to investigate respondents’ perceptions about creating a family, and giving/not giving birth. Some interviewees were from Taipei (42%), and others from other areas throughout Taiwan (58%). Before starting the interviews, a description of the research was given to the interviewees and informed consent was obtained, as was permission to record the interviews. Interviews were totally anonymous (pseudonyms have been used in case of direct quotations). The style of interviews was semi-structured and included around ten questions regarding participants’ life histories in relation to gender-relevant situations. For example, they were asked who had taken care of them in childhood, how they imagined creating a family, what kind of relationships they had experienced, and what kind of working environment regarding gender issues they currently faced, etc. (see Appendix). The average interview took around one hour, while only a few took less than 30 minutes. Most interviewees actively participated and many of them took longer than expected. They generally responded directly and enthusiastically to questions about family-in-law-related issues in Taiwan. All interviews were completed in the period from summer to autumn 2020.

Data Analysis

The interviews were analyzed using reflective thematic analysis, which is a method for exploring and interpreting patterns of meaning across datasets. Reflective thematic analysis is theoretically flexible and appropriate for examining people’s experiences, views, and/or perceptions, as well as the social processes that influence and shape particular phenomena: it is thus suited to answering the research question. The interviews were first transcribed to increase familiarization with the data, and then codes were generated and applied to the data set. After that, similar codes and content were grouped, and themes were constructed with relevance to the research question (concerning “traditional matters”): the whole data set was then reviewed along with refining of the main themes [24, 25]. More specifically, four main themes were generated: (1) the division of labor concerning gender in terms of experiences in the family during childhood; (2) experiences and perceptions about family issues regarding in-laws, particularly women; (3) dissatisfaction with family-friendly policies; and (4) anti-tradition attitudes.

Findings and Discussion

Traditional Matters in Different Situations

As described above, reflective thematic analysis was used, resulting in four main themes, all addressing “traditional matters” in different situations. The direct quotations used below are associated with pseudonyms: information is provided about the interviewees in brackets (pseudonym: marital status, year of birth).

Theme 1. “My mother took care of me; she was a kind of a superwoman”: the division of labor by gender—experiences in families during childhood.

The interviewees’ mothers mainly had responsibility for domestic work like household chores and childcare. However, some mothers had only temporarily been housewives (until their children entered kindergarten or were enrolled in elementary school), mainly from dual-income families. Relatives (mainly on the paternal side) also helped, as did hired housekeepers or nannies, but only some domestic work was outsourced, and mothers were not liberated from such domestic work.

Basically, because both of them worked, when we were small I was taken care of by my grandma and nanny – all of my siblings were; after we went to elementary school, my mom did it [took care of us]. (Li: unmarried, has partner, born in 1981)

There was a nanny. My father’s aunt took care of us. She was not a professional. She lived on the second floor, so my parents took us to her place during the daytime. After I went to elementary school, mom took care of me. (Wang: single, 1983)

My parents, they have their own business. [During the daytime] there was a babysitter… my aunt, on my mother’s side. [She] did the cooking and cleaning. We [the interviewee and her siblings] lived in her house during workdays and went back on the weekends, before elementary school: we went to kindergarten from our auntie’s house. My parents slept earlier, from 6pm, we had a housekeeper, she also took care of my grandmother. She lived with us. Grandparents played with us. Mom, after her job finished, she looked at our homework and also did some laundry. Because for the housekeeper the most important thing was taking care of my grandma. (Zhang: married, no child, 1990)

In most cases, interviewees lived close to their paternal relatives and paternal grandmother, or female relatives could be asked to take care of children during the day: mothers were in charge of childcare at night. Phrases such as “my father did not do housework,” and “father? Nothing!” were heard many times. In one case, a father was mainly in charge of housework and childcare, but he had been unemployed when the interviewee was young, and her mother was working abroad.

My dad is very conservative and traditional. He did not really want to take care of us, just bring in the money. (Yang: unmarried, has partner, 1985)

In this way, the fathers’ role focused on working outside the home, and fathers were not regarded as domestic workers, while mothers were expected to play the traditional role of domestic workers and the role of earners.

I think she was very tired when we were children. (Xu: married, no child, 1987)

Due to the continuous presence of females such as mothers/grandmothers (who were always in charge of housework and childcare), there was an overemphasis on fathers’ accomplishments if they actually did any housework. For example, one interviewee, whose father was the exception, was mainly in charge of the housework, as she explained:

I feel especially that my father did more than mom… it was really weird when I was kid… the newspaper interviewed my dad just because he did much more than other fathers in Taiwan. They said ‘you have such a great father!’ – but I know my mom did not even spend much time with us, but she worked so hard, and I don’t think mothers in Taiwan got such attention, positive comments, or judgement from society [for doing such care work]. But my dad, he just cooked, etc. then society thought that he was a super awesome father. (Sun: unmarried, has partner, 1987)

In addition, comments such as “in my parents’ generation it was not common” and “it was not very ordinary” were used by interviewees to explain that their fathers sometimes “helped” or that “mother asked him to do household chores.” This tendency (for the main domestic worker to be the mother, regardless of her own work) did not vary among most categories of interviewees (“unmarried, has partner,” “single,” and “married, no child”), but there was a slight difference in the case of “married, has child/ren”: in this case, three (n=9) interviewees answered that “both father and mother participated in family-related work.” In other categories, if the fathers participated, they passively “sometimes helped,” as mentioned above: however, in the latter category, the word “share” was used, and it was claimed that the father had participated in the family relatively actively.

These gender imbalances and overemphasis on any work at home carried out by fathers, as noted above, were perceived as the unequal treatment of sons and daughters: the division of labor by gender according to parents was also reflected in the situation of their children. Concerning the interviewees (n=23/43) who had had an older or younger brother, only they (i.e., the daughters) were asked to help, while the son had been exempt. In some interviews, interviewees described their experiences of growing up with this difference. This tendency was not identified in the case of interviewees with older or younger sisters.

My mother was very kind to my brother – that was very typical. The attitude was just a little different (to me and to him). She (my Mum) said, “because you are the sis, you need to care for your brother.” (Lian: single, 1986)

I know my mom prefers boys more. Because my bro…I felt my mom liked my bro more. She always asked me to do things instead of him, even when he was standing in front of her. (When the respondent had argued that this was unfair) she (my Mum) always gave strange excuses, like “he is busy.” (Hu: unmarried, has partner, 1991)

These situations raised negative associations about the prospect of creating a family. Few interviewees had imagined becoming mothers when they were younger: (n=5/9: married, has child/ren) (n=3/9: married, no child) (n=4/12: unmarried, has partner) (n=4/12: single). Slightly more than 50% of interviewees classified as “married, has child/ren” had entertained the idea of becoming mothers when they were younger, but this does not necessarily mean that they had positive associations about it. Only one interviewee (unmarried, has partner) had viewed this prospect positively, stating the following: “Like my mother, I had wanted to have a child since I was a child because I had good family relationships. I wanted to make a family like my own family when I grew up.” However, 19 interviewees, including those who had imagined being mothers, had a negative perception of what this would involve.

No, not a strong desire to be (a mom). I think it is the influence of my mom, she was so busy, and I don’t want to be like her. I also think that it is a problem that she was not satisfied with me even if I helped her. (Fen: unmarried, has partner, 1981)

I did not imagine it too much when I was child because my parents fought so often, so maybe I cannot imagine how to be a good parent. (Tang: single, 1986)

Maybe my mom was once my model, but once I became older, she was not anymore, because she is very demanding…when I got older, I really knew that what my mom did was not totally right. She punished us, beat us – I did not like that. My mom said parents are always right; you cannot deny it. I was not affected, but I did not know how to fight back. (Cao: married, has child/ren, 1982)

I imagine (in regard to being a mother) someone like my mom, working all day long, getting angry easily. Because my mom did not have her own time (and therefore did not want to be a mother). (Yan: married, has child/ren, 1987)

As mentioned, many mothers were in charge of paid work and unpaid work; thus, interviewees had a negative attitude toward motherhood because they had seen their mothers struggling in an emotional and physical sense. In terms of the three categories of interviewees, except for those identified as “single,” interviewees thought similarly to the sentiment captured in the following response: “I would like to make a friend-like relationship with my child/ren because my relationship with my parents was not good / because they were too strict”: here, the interviewees might be responding to an overly strict education. In addition, even if they imagined vaguely “having child/ren someday,” no interviewees imagined having a husband/father, which may have been due to their weak relationships with their own fathers. Most respondents’ fathers did not participate in the lives of their families, and had few opportunities to communicate with them. Some of the interviewees who lived with or were close to their relatives vaguely had wanted to have child/ren in the future because they were surrounded by siblings/cousins. However, as they grew up, they gradually realized how their mothers were sacrificing their time doing paid and unpaid work, and became more reluctant to be mothers, or completely changed their thoughts about it.

Theme 2. “They complain on Facebook or something about their mother-in-law”: experiences and perceptions about family issues regarding in-laws, particularly for women

When it came to stories about family, especially about mothers-in-law, both unmarried and married interviewees were talkative: it was particularly married respondents who remembered their actual experiences and talked about the stress they had been under for a long time, and their dissatisfaction with the current situation. Mei (married, has child/ren, 1983) and Fen (unmarried, has partner, 1981) and others shared their dissatisfaction with their mothers-in-law and with events that had been held at their parents-in-law’s homes on social media platforms such as Facebook, or said they had seen and heard about such problems that were being shared on such platforms among friends. This means that they were dissatisfied, but the dissatisfaction was not directly communicated to their parents-in-law.

You cannot express directly (what you think). They can say anything to you (the daughter-in-law) and you should just say YESYESYES!(Ren: married, has child/ren, 1985)

A mother-in-law loves her sons very much, so if bad things happen, they blame the wife. (Shi: married, no child, 1984)

I know it’s only a paper (a marriage certificate), but I also know that people change once they become wives’ people's expectations change. (Fen: unmarried, has partner, 1981)

The above remarks suggest that the gender role of being a wife and daughter-in-law was emphasized in a social context after marriage, and the respondents seemed to reluctantly accept this, or to be prepared to obey, although perceiving the unreasonableness of this.

I should be acting like I am a good wife in front of them. Because there is pressure from society. Originally, I always said NO if I did not want to do something, but I've changed a bit: Because if you don't act ‘correctly,’ society blames you. (Bai: married, no child, 1991)

Most married women have to (obey and take care of their parents-in-law) because if they don't do that society tells them “you are not a good daughter-in-law; you are mean”; they blame you; they don't think this is unfair. (Tai: unmarried, has partner, 1981)

This issue is not simply about relationships with parents-in-law, but also involves the relationship between society and the communities to which the interviewees belong. For example, the most challenging occasions arose at the time of special events. Traditional events such as Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn, and the Dragon Festival are traditionally expected to be celebrated together with parents-in-law, not with wives’ own parents: As mentioned earlier, during such events, the entire family/kinship gathers together and the daughter-in-law is expected to follow her mother-in-law’s lead and work diligently to complete household chores as well as do the emotional work entertaining members of the kinship. This activity is not obligatory, but, as the latter interviewee mentioned, there is a risk of censure by society if women do not do what is expected of them [13]. Some interviewees were extremely afraid of being the subject of bad rumors in their community. Only one interviewee said “I don’t follow any of these traditions,” while 42 interviewees, both married and unmarried, answered that in such situations they had to obey, even if they thought “I don’t agree.” The level of disagreement was different, but what is clear is that no interviewees preferred to visit parents-in-law rather than their own parents. Five of the interviewees from the medical profession responded similarly to the following statements: “lots of female doctors want to work on (Lunar) New Year’s day to avoid visiting in-laws,” and “I see that in hospital, at (Lunar) New Year my colleagues take shifts to avoid having to visit family-in-law.” In other words, if there is an opportunity to avoid contact with parents-in-law, they actively use it.

Marriage is not about two people, two families, (though) men don’t change. (Yang: unmarried, has partner, 1985)

Once you get married, if you are female, you need to take care of two families, but for men it is only one family – you don’t have to take care of the wife’s family. (Jin: single, 1990)

In Taiwan, I don’t know, in Asian countries I think, marriage involves two families, including lots of people, so marriage affects too many things. I don’t want to complicate it…if we are happy to be together, just the two of us, it is OK. But if you want to get married, my family, your family, your kinships...too much family pressure. I don’t want to have that. (Tai: unmarried, has partner, 1981)

Marriage was not seen as being the subject of individual desire, but the interviewees perceived that there was social consensus among families that females should get married. For unmarried interviewees, this led to statements such as “therefore I do not want to get married,” while married interviewees (such as the medical staff mentioned above) were already married so had given up resisting pressure and compromised, or looked for ways to escape troublesome situations.

Theme 3. “Just follow the rules, but not really…”: dissatisfaction with family-friendly policies in practice.

In Taiwan, the Labor Standards Act (Article 50) is one of the measures for increasing the fertility rate and guarantees eight weeks of maternity leave (including before and after childbirth), while wages during this time are required to be paid by the company as usual [26]. However, many women work until the last moment before giving birth, and only take eight weeks of postnatal leave after giving birth. In Taiwan, which has the lowest fertility rate in the world, the government has implemented many related measures in recent years, and the 2009 revision of the law introduced a paid childcare leave system. Mothers can apply for up to two years of parental leave until their child is three years old, during which time they can receive 60% of their former salary, paid from employment insurance for up to six months [27]. However, it is doubtful whether this policy actually works. It is also questionable whether women indeed are aware of such policies and plan to fully enjoy their rights and benefits. Interviewees’ experiences and perceptions of such family-friendly policies resulted in the following statements.

I never had a coworker who was pregnant. I never saw that my boss knew how to treat women. But I had a male coworker that wanted to go on leave, and I saw my boss was not very happy. He (the employee) just realized that he could take only one day of leave per month. They (employees) do have a right to leave when they have a newborn child. But I think because of the bosses (it is hard to do this). (Mu: married, no child, ’989)

I don’t think my boss would be happy if I took childcare leave. I think my evaluation would be a little worse. I would be able to go back to my position, but maybe the work would be passed on to other people. (Wei: unmarried, has partner, 1983)

They just follow the regulations. You may apply for several years’ leave, and keep the position, but it’s risky. You may not be able to come back. It is not guaranteed. Private companies are like this. For more than six months, it is risky. (Jiao: single, 1981)

They have to adhere to the laws. I don’t think they can do more. You can take six months’ leave, can keep your position. (But) I have never seen someone use it. One colleague took it, but in the end she quit. (Wang: single, 1983)

More than 80% (n=35/43) of interviewees answered that they were working or had worked before for a company with a “family-friendly policy,” but, as mentioned above, this involved nothing more than the company adhering to the Labor Standards Law, the application of which is obligatory. The result is that the environment for women (and men) who take maternity/paternity leave for more than eight weeks is harsh. Many interviewees answered “yes” to the question of whether their company has a family-friendly policy, but they did not know the policy of their company in detail, confirming that taking maternity/paternity leave and childcare leave are not common. Only one interviewee answered that “there is a kindergarten for employees.” The larger the company, or the public sector, the easier it was to take maternity/paternity leave. In contrast, it was difficult for those who worked at small or medium-sized enterprises to continue working once they became pregnant, and most interviewees said that they had never had a pregnant colleague. If the company was small, several interviewees said that hidden negotiations (regarding whether to take a break/leave) might occur if the employee’s relationship with their boss was fine, but the overall atmosphere in this regard (i.e., concerning family planning) was unfriendly.

Three of the married interviewees had moved to a company where maternity/paternity leave was guaranteed (after giving birth), or were planning to move to such a company. Four interviewees worked for an airline (three of them were flight attendants), at which benefits for employees were perceived as outstandingly generous: however, two of these organizations were foreign-owned companies. Interviewees who were working or had worked abroad or at overseas companies, including for airlines, emphasized the difference in treatment between the latter and Taiwanese companies.

Being a woman is sometimes a disadvantage in terms of hiring, as well as tends to affect salary negatively. Some interviewees (n=7/43) said that during their job interview, it had been unpleasant to be asked if they were planning to get married or have children, despite this being illegal. But an interviewee who runs her own company said:

When we hire someone, isn’t it a big consideration that women will get pregnant? Now, the government doesn’t give us any support for this, so that will be a human resource cost. (Mei: married, has child/ren, 1983)

This suggests that statistical discrimination is clearly perceived yet neglected intentionally. Even in the case that a woman is free to take maternity leave and has a helpful husband, her pregnancy would affect her work. The latter interviewee admitted that being a wife was associated with more responsibilities in Taiwan, but as an employer she was worried about the risk of hiring women. It was also reported that employers sometimes favored men even if women candidates were single and were less at risk of becoming pregnant—as an interviewee said:

My income is lower than that of my male colleague who is of equal status. I asked the manager why, and the boss said it was because he needed to maintain his family. I was confused. We have the same education, etc. I thought WHY!? It is illegal, but they (bosses) have many reasons for doing this. (Lian: single, 1986)

Taiwanese women work regardless of whether they are married or unmarried, but the working culture still envisions men as the main breadwinners. In line with this, working women may feel that they are discriminated against simply due to their gender.

Theme 4. “I don’t want to sacrifice anything for the guy”: resistance to traditional ideas

Throughout the interviews, the concept of going “against tradition” dominated, regardless of the issue. The “tradition” recognized by interviewees is basically the Confucian patriarchal system, and there is still strong opposition to having “a fixed life course” and “being a wife, being a mother, being a daughter-in-law.”

Seven unmarried women (n=7/25) stated that they did not want to live with their parents-in-law; these interviewees, many of whom were classified as “single” (n=6/13), claimed this strongly, and said marriage was not important. Underlying this position is the social impact of the legal status of marriage on paper, and the change in the status of “married women” in the eyes of society. As mentioned in Theme 2, there is widespread understanding that marriage is not due to the individual’s desire; thus, women desire to be free from such expectations and gender roles through “only” dating or cohabiting.

In addition, married interviewees rejected the premise that they would live with their parents-in-law, saying, “if living together were needed, we would not have got married,” or “we discuss how to make up for events” (wives usually visit their in-laws on special occasions), and that they “do not obey their parents-in-law.” But, as mentioned in Theme 2, their frustration accumulates due to their evaluation by society. The fact that in Taiwan proximity to (prospective) parents-in-law is considered important, regardless of whether a couple is married, means that there is still strong patriarchal pressure. For example, Ms. Yan, who works as a private teacher, stated that:

“One (of my students) used to live with her family-in-law, but they fought all the time and then moved out; after that she had to do everything (both paid and unpaid work). Her husband asked her to move back in, but she said ‘NO!’.”(Yan: married, has child/ren, 1987)

Even if a husband does not participate in family life, some respondents believe that it is better to complete all the domestic work alone, and to live only with a husband and children, since the stress caused by living with parents-in-law may otherwise be greater for the woman. Husbands become guests at their wives’ parents’ homes, but wives remain in a state of servitude at their husbands’ parents’ homes even when they still try to “behave well” in front of their parents-in-law due to the latter’s—and others’—evaluation of them.

A woman with a foreign partner, Ms. Ni, said, “I don’t really have to deal with them, which is nice,” regarding the fact that Taiwanese traditions do not apply to her prospective parents-in-law because they live abroad. She continued, “I would say I don’t wanna live with them, but it would involve extra responsibility if I were married to a Taiwanese person.” Another woman with a foreign partner, Ms. Yu, said “yeah I thought about that – if I dated a Taiwanese man I might not get married to him, or would have made some agreement with him; you cannot force me to do anything which I don’t want to do” (Yu: unmarried, has partner, 1985).

The partner’s role is also important. Almost all interviewees, unmarried and married, said they had checked to varying degrees “whether the husband was good at home,” and “whether he would be a father who was involved in childcare”—that is, whether he was a patriarchal figure. For the interviewees—highly educated women—whether their partners respected their opinions and imposed traditional gender roles was important. The following quotes indicate how the interviewees were concerned about how their partners would act after marriage, and if marriage would really be good for them:

If your husband is not good at communication, it will be a problem. You need to have diplomatic skills, especially with a mother-in-law; lots of Taiwanese guys do not have this. (Mei: married, has child/ren, 1983)

But in the end, I notice that the most important thing is the husband’s attitude. It is always your husband – how he acts. (Ran: married, with child/ren, 1982)

Actually, the man, the husband, is the key to coordination, but they don’t want to be involved. It causes a lot of pressure for women. (Tai: unmarried, has partner, 1981)

I think relationships with in-laws are very important, but one of the most important things is the husband’s attitude – whether he takes care of this or not. (Ai: unmarried, has partner, 1991)

I think the husband’s role is the most important factor (because) it’s his mother and wife. (Hu: unmarried, has partner, 1991)

While marriage involves a connection between two families in Taiwan, it is husbands who represent the bridge between their wives and their in-laws, and wives’ satisfaction with marital life affects how husbands behave.

Consideration of These Four Themes and Willingness to Have a Family

Gender Equality; Society in Practice

The four themes above show that women face various inequalities and feel they are treated unequally. As shown in Theme 1, one factor in women’s reluctance to get married is the fact that they see their mothers do double shifts in their childhood, and witness oppressive behavior toward them, creating the view that they “do not want…(to be like that).” Another reason for their reluctance to marry is that their fathers did not participate in the family and maintained a distance from their children; thus, there was no good role model concerning being a mother and making a family. In fact, it cannot be overlooked that the fathers of the interviewees who were married and had children had participated slightly more in family life. One woman also noted that she was envious of a married friend of hers who was on good terms with her father and that her friend’s husband participated in the family and exchanged opinions with her; it made the interviewee want to have such a relationship. Increasing the number of such positive role models would have a positive effect on the marriage rate and thus the fertility rate.

Gender inequality in the workplace should also not be overlooked. As seen in Theme 3, it was found that companies did not welcome the taking of maternity leave, and employees recognized that taking maternity leave could lead to a loss of employment. Conditions at the workplace, which is supposed to be a public place, do not over-write gender roles within the family, which is a private place, and employers asking about future family plans at work is uncomfortable for women. Women are more likely to consider changing jobs after marriage, childbirth, and childcare, and a gender gap can be seen at the stage of the selection of careers.

Ultimately, Taiwanese women generally live in a state of dissatisfaction as they are exposed to traditional gender roles and society’s expectations of them as women throughout their childhood, school years, employment, and in respect of creating a family.

Differences Between Married and Unmarried Women

It was not always the case that married women who had children had talked about planning a family with their partners before marriage, and three interviewees (n=3/9: married, has child/ren) said they had had only vague ideas about this (“I want a child/ren someday”). The remaining six (n=6/9) did not talk about this even a little. Two interviewees (“married, no children” [n=2/9]) said that before marriage they had “wanted a family someday” (one of them no longer wanted one after marriage), and three of them had had a concrete plan in connection with this, such as how many years after marriage they would give birth. The remaining four had never wanted or planned a family (although one of them wanted to give birth when she reached 35 after getting married).

In this regard, unmarried people had slightly different tendencies to married people: two interviewees (n=2/12: unmarried, has partner) had had a vague discussion with their partners about having children ( “I/we want a family someday”): four interviewees did not want child/ren (but their partner wanted one); one interviewee wanted child/ren (but her partner was reluctant); and another four interviewees had no plans. Only one interviewee had a concrete plan about when to get married and how many children to have, and had discussed this with her partner. Some of the interviewees who said “I don’t want one” were worried about interrupting their careers, but did not completely reject childbearing. Of those without a partner, five interviewees had vague hopes (n=5/13): “if there is a good partner in the future (then I might get married and give birth)”: three interviewees had a strong desire to have child/ren (but a permanent partner was not needed for this), while the remaining five interviewees had no particular hopes concerning marriage or childbirth. There was a difference between those with the status “unmarried, has partner” and “single”: the former women themselves had recognized that they did not want or were not in a state of being able to give birth; some of their partners (male) wanted to have child/ren, but the interviewees themselves refused: this was because (common to the four groups) becoming a wife/mother would change their role a lot, whereas not so much for men. However, the “single” women claimed they would have loved to have a child. However, they expected that if they had a partner they would face difficulty continuing their careers and raising children, and their concerns might come to resemble those of women in the “unmarried, has partner” category.

In addition, those women who were single had a little less experience with romantic relationships than women classified into the other categories; some women were confused by the pressure put on them by society and parents who attempted to try to decide their life course in relation to their age: dating was often prohibited until the age of eighteen, but was permitted after entering university, while after graduating women were expected to get married and have children.

The teacher said clearly that it was not allowed for students to date; or they called students’ parents to draw their attention to it. I think it caused me to fantasize about having a relationship. It builds our fantasy, but does not allow us to have a clear relationship. The teacher just forced us to study so we could enter a good university. They don’t tell you why, they say just study. They don’t touch the sexual thing in school. People don’t discuss it. I complained to my mom (after I became an adult), and she said: “I didn’t have any idea because no one told me either” (when she was young). (Xie: single, 1979)

As can be seen from this interviewee’s example, as a teenager, they were stubbornly prohibited from interacting with people of a different gender, as well as obtaining sexual knowledge. However, suddenly one day they were asked “when will you get married?” and were told “we need a grandchild!” Interviewees who were confused by such requests were prevalent in the “single” category. Their parents had been unable to answer their questions and had influenced the latter’s life course due to their traditional mindsets. These types of women were usually honor students; hence, they tried to adhere to what their teachers and parents said—which was not to date boys. When they became adults, they had no idea about how to communicate with people of the opposite sex. If they do find a partner, it is liable that they will encounter the same trouble as other women with partners. In accordance with this, the unmarried women’s thoughts in relation to having a family are illustrated in the following diagram.

Unmarried women’s thoughts in relation to starting a family

figure a

Although single women have complex reasons for having/not having partners, this is seen as a significant barrier to marriage in all categories and a source of “dissatisfaction” in relation to the traditional gender roles to which marriage exposes them. These respondents are highly educated and believe in equality and think they deserve it. However, society does not permit this—or at least this is how they feel. Even married women confirmed that they do not have to meet their in-laws frequently and they avoid traditional events before marriage: if this does not occur, frustration builds up. This—as Hochschild pointed out—is partly because the revolution in men’s participation in family work has not been successful, and nor do men adopt the role of moderators between their parents and their wife. Therefore, single women may make a rational choice to remain single considering the drawbacks of marriage, and believe that they will have a better life if they remain single. Unless gender roles are reformed in the areas of education, local communities, and the labor market (generally, in society as a whole), their dissatisfaction will not be resolved and the marriage rate and thus the birth rate will not increase. On the contrary, the gap between gender equality on the surface and in the private sphere may become increasingly wide: indeed, perhaps this gap is the main reason for the decline in the marriage rate and the fertility rate.

Conclusion and Suggestions

A high level of gender equality, which the Taiwanese government boasts of, and actually appears to be represented in the data, does not exist in Taiwanese society in practice. The interviewees were expected by society and their communities to be “wives” and “mothers” in the wake of marriage, and were very cautious about confronting the unfairness involved in relations with in-laws. This highlights the contradictory perceptions of interviewees who, despite their strong educational background—which gives them access to equality in public—are exposed to patriarchal values in their private space, especially in family life. The status of wives is low in such paternalistic families, and Taiwanese women (including our interviewees) who grew up seeing their mothers treated unequally are very wary of being subject to the same treatment, regardless of whether they are married. Therefore, the hypothesis defined earlier in this paper is mostly supported.

In relation to willingness to create a family, most married couples want to have child/ren; thus, increasing the fertility rate relies on increasing the marriage rate. Women defined as “unmarried, has partner” are wary of falling off the career track in a male-dominated labor society grounded on statistical discrimination, and are afraid of being treated as low-status “wives” at home, as well as being criticized by their community, which motivates them to stay single. Those women who are single are not in this situation yet have less chance of making contact with people of the opposite sex due to the prevalence of gender-segregated education and pressure from adults around them: these types of women are usually honor students; hence, they try to adhere to what teachers and parents say—which is not to date boys. When they become adults, they have no idea about how to communicate with people of the opposite sex. If they find a partner, it is predictable that they will encounter the same challenges as other women with a partner. One of the sources of value of this study is that it has brought these issues to light.

Considering the limitations of the research, future directions can be identified. Since this qualitative research was built on interviews with 43 highly educated Taiwanese women, examining a sample that includes individuals with a different educational background as well as male participants’ experiences and perceptions would supplement this research well and provide more empirical evidence and insight into the gender situation in Taiwanese society. Despite its limitations, the research reveals that the level of equality shown in the data does not reflect the situation in Taiwan. This means either that the indices that measure gender equality are inadequate or that gender equality indices do not adequately capture the situation in familistic regimes.

Taiwanese women—especially highly educated women—have superficially equal positions, try to avoid engaging with traditional norms so as to protect their rights, and attempt to avoid traditional family gender roles; the current marriage rate indicates this implicitly. The welfare that the state should be responsible for, such as childcare and nursing care, is supplied by women in the name of tradition, but the willingness of females to have a family is declining. Gender equality policy works and is effective when systematically enacted: relying on family members for welfare can lead to undesirable consequences [8, 28]. Currently, Taiwan’s gender equality policy only addresses a small part of the system and its effectiveness is limited. Expanding the target of welfare policy from individuals (female) to households and society as a whole, promoting family participation for males, and promoting comprehensive equality are some of the keys to increasing the marriage rate and fertility rate in the future. By increasing the proportion of female MPs and recognizing the situation in society that this study has revealed, and thus amplifying women’s voices, it may be feasible to enact such policies. If more positive cases (see the examples above) arise that make women feel “I want to be like this” rather than negative examples, “I do not want to be like that,” the positive effects may spread throughout society, as the present results imply.