In Japan, working mothers are often frowned upon, but is it the same in China?

It’s hard to be a working mother anywhere in the world, but in Japan it often seems like there are extra hurdles to overcome. Japanese women face enormous pressure to quit their careers in favor or motherhood, and because they often have to leave work early or take days off for their children, working women are considered a burden on the company, and are not always warmly welcomed back after giving birth. What’s more, a daycare shortage in Japan means women (who are the primary child caretakers in most marriages) feel forced to leave their jobs, unless they’re lucky enough to be able to bring their baby to work, an arrangement most employers aren’t willing to accommodate.

Our Japanese-language correspondent Meg was talking about these issues with a Chinese friend, Mrs. A, who told Meg that Chinese working mothers don’t face the same stigma as their Japanese counterparts. Mrs. A is an ambitious woman who worked hard as a student to earn various qualifications in preparation for her career, even working in Japan for a time, and has changed her occupation multiple times in order to climb the business ladder. But she is also a mother of one, so she volunteered to tell us about her experience as a working mother in China.

What does Mrs. A say is the societal perception of employed moms in China? Apparently they are more desirable candidates than even fresh college graduates, because:

“Before giving birth, most women usually have lots of work experience, right? That’s one reason. Plus, more than anything else, they are viewed as more responsible, because they have children. There is no reason for them to be disliked by their employers.”

A pretty sensible explanation. In most cases, women take up jobs after graduating from university, so it’s not like mothers are inexperienced applicants. They should, in a sense be more qualified than college applicants.

Mrs. A continued on to explain that elements of Chinese culture play a role in its citizens’ perceptions as well.

“We used to have the one-child policy in China, and even today, most people want to focus all of their parenting on one child. Few choose to have more. From a company’s point of view, once they’ve already had their child, there likely won’t be much change in the mother’s life, so they’re considered stable employees. 

Of course, people quit and change jobs all of the time, but if you’re a company, you want to keep the best workers, don’t you? They’d prefer employees who are responsible and are almost guaranteed to have stability in their lives. In China, just because you have a child, it doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage. Rather it makes you more appealing than even new college graduates!”

In short, in China, working mothers are perceived in a more positive light, not as “unreliable because they have children”, but rather as “more responsible because they have children”. However, there’s a key cultural difference that may make a significant impact on how working mothers are perceived, and that’s the tendency for families to have only one child. While Japan’s birthrate has been steadily decreasing for various reasons, there has never been a government-mandated one-child policy, and there’s no expectation that families will only have one child.

But really, shouldn’t a mother be considered stable either way, especially if she has multiple children? Let’s be honest, she’ll probably need the extra income to pay for everything those children need, like expensive school uniforms.

In any case, in Japan, even if you are able to work, it can be hard to find affordable childcare that will allow you to work. Meg wondered who cares for Chinese children while their parents are working, so she asked Mrs. A. In her case, she leaves her child in the care of her parents. From a Japanese perspective it might be considered a burden to rely on the grandparents so heavily for childcare, but this seems to be normal in Communist China, where all members of society are apparently expected to work, including mothers, and where the raising of children falls to the non-working grandparents.

Furthermore, in Japan there is the belief that “children need to be with the mothers until age three”, but in China, there is no stigma against leaving your children with someone else, as it’s a common practice. Working mothers are not considered bad mothers simply for not spending every hour of every day with their children.

Of course, this is only Mrs. A’s experience, and different people could have different responses depending on the company, the region, and the family. But when Meg asked her other Chinese acquaintances, she got similar responses from all of them, indicating that Mrs. A’s perceptions may just be the norm in China.

That’s not to say that Chinese motherhood is all roses and Japanese motherhood all thorns. Mrs. A made sure to point out the good things about having children in Japan as well.

“Japan has a lot of good points too. For example, you can take a whole year off for maternity leave, right? I’ve heard that you can even extend it. But you can’t take that long in China. I only got about five months for my child’s birth. 

It’s also different in terms of schooling. In China, there are two different family registers: a city register and a rural register. Even if you live in the city, if your family is registered in the countryside, your child will not be admitted into a school in the city. You have to go through a complex process to enroll them. In Japan, you can just send your kids to whatever district is written on your residence card, right? I’m jealous.”

This discussion brings up a valuable point: can one country really be considered better than another, especially in regard to women’s rights and gender gaps? After all, there are a lot of good reasons to be a woman in Japan, and Japanese women don’t necessarily always feel at a disadvantage, particularly when men are expected to work extremely hard to support their families. Some major companies in Japan are even making an effort to make life easier for working mothers. Nevertheless, it’s beneficial to have these kinds of conversations with people from other cultures, to find out what kinds of things make up the good, and the bad, of our own societies.

Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso (1, 2, 3)

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