Knowledge Center

Women in the Workforce: China


Men Outnumber Women in World's Most Populated Nation1

China’s total population is 1,373,541,278, which makes it the world’s most populous country.2

  • Women are 48.6% of China’s population.3
  • A 2012 report found that China’s gender imbalance has contributed to slowed population and labor force growth, increased proportions of single men, trafficking of women, and rising crime rates.4
China's Aging Population Is on the Rise5

China’s fertility rate (1.6 births per woman) is falling below replacement level, putting China at risk of becoming an ageing society.6

  • In 2016, 10.4% of China’s population was over 65 years old.7 The elderly (65+) population is expected to rise to about 17.1% by 2030 and 26.3% by 2050, a projected increase of 15.9% over 34 years.8

Almost half (48%) of China’s population is between 25 and 54 years old.9

The Elderly Rights and Security Law states that the care for elderly parents is the responsibility of adult children, even though many employers are limiting the flexibility of caregivers.10

  • China’s former “one-child policy” led married couples to maintain the sole care of four elderly parents. This care became more likely the responsibility of women than of men.11

  • As of January 1, 2016, China's "two-child policy" allows all married couples to have two children.12

Marriage and Family Are Undergoing Cultural Changes13

Women are marrying later, with the mean average for women at 24 years old in 2013, a slight increase from 23 years old in 2000.14

  • A 2017 study revealed that 40.1% of working women in China were hesitant to have children.15
    • Over half (63.4%) of women worried that having children would significantly impact their career development.16

Many advantaged women and less-advantaged men now remain single due to traditional beliefs that men should be more educated than their wives.17

  • Almost 50% of highly educated women (with post-secondary education) were unmarried in 2010, 10.1% higher than the percentage of unmarried and highly educated men.18

The divorce rate has been on the rise, from 1.1% in 2003 to 3.0% in 2016 (an increase of over 170%).19

The Majority of Mothers in China Work20

72% of mothers between 25 and 34 years of age with children under the age of six were employed in 2010.21

  • A barrier for working women created by China’s economic reforms is the reduction of government, public, and employer childcare options.22


More Women Are College Educated Than Before23

Representation of women in higher education has steadily increased in the past decade.24

  • In 2014, over half (51.1%) of enrolled students in tertiary (post-secondary) education25 were women.26

  • Women represented just over half (51.1%) of tertiary graduates in 2014.27

Labor Force

In 2016, the majority (70.8%) of China’s population aged 15 years and older participated in the labor force.28

  • 63.3% of women were in the labor force compared to 77.9% of men.29

A Gender Pay Gap Persists in China’s Labor Force30

Women earn on average 35% less than men for doing similar work, ranking in the bottom third of the Global Gender Gap Index (ranked 99th out of 144 countries).31

  • Women’s average annual income lags behind men’s. In 2010, women earned just over two-thirds (67.3%) of men’s income in urban areas, and just over half (56%) of men’s income in rural areas.32
Working Norms and Policies Disadvantage Women33

Maternity leave is at least 98 days,34 and 100% of wages for maternity leave are paid by the employer and government combined.35

  • Employers sometimes use the long maternity leave to deny women employment. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports discrimination practices in China based on maternity, with employers choosing to hire only women who already have children, denying pregnant women statutory leave, or dismissing women during pregnancy.36

In a 2010 survey, more than 72% of women stated they were not hired or promoted due to gender discrimination.37

  • Over 75% believed they were “being dismissed” due to marriage or childbirth.38

Mandatory retirement ages in China differ between women and men.39

  • Women in blue-collar occupations (e.g., factory workers) are often required to retire at age 50, and women in white-collar occupations (e.g., professionals, managers) at age 55. Special categories of women (e.g., college professor) can work until age 60.40

  • The mandatory retirement age for urban employed men is 60.41

China’s early retirement age for women contributes to missed career development and advancement opportunities, reduced pensions, and fewer social security benefits for female retirees.42


Despite High Labor Force Participation, There Are Few Women in Leadership Roles43

In 2016, women were just 17% of all legislators, senior officials, and managers in China.44

  • Only 17.5% of firms in China have women as top managers.45

In 2015, women represented 9.2% of boards46 and 22% of CFOs47 of companies in China.

  • In 2013, only 3.2% of CEOs of Chinese companies were women.48
Women Have Low Representation in Political Offices49

Less than one-quarter (24.2%) of all positions in China’s single-house parliament are held by women, placing it 72nd out of 193 countries.50

  • 12% of ministerial positions in China’s government were held by women in 2016.51

  • Out of the past 50 years, there were only four with a female head of state.52

No woman has ever been among the nine members of China’s top level of decision-making, the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party.53

Additional Resources

Catalyst, Expanding Work-Life Perspectives: Talent Management in China (2012).

Catalyst, Quick Take: Statistical Overview of Women in the Workforce.

Human Rights Watch, "China—Events of 2016," World Report 2017 (2017).

Qingwen Xu and Wing Kwan Anselm Lam, China Public Policy (The Sloan Center on Aging & Work, January 2010).

US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “Status of Women,” 2016 Annual Report (2016).


How to cite this product: Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in the Workforce: China (August 31, 2017).