Navigating the gender maze highlighting women’s power and marital bliss in China

Navigating the gender maze highlighting women’s power and marital bliss in China

Unveiling complexities, research exposes how women’s empowerment in decision-making doesn’t always translate to marital satisfaction.

Research suggests that when women have more say in family decisions, it usually leads to better outcomes for their well-being. In China, as society changes, women become more independent, not relying solely on their husbands. They are taking part in jobs and activities traditionally seen as men’s domains, which gives them more control over their lives. This shift empowers women to make important decisions within their families, like managing household finances. As a result, women tend to be happier in their marriages because they have more freedom to follow their preferences.

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However, my study, using data from the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS), found something unexpected. Research suggests that increased involvement in family decisions doesn’t always boost marital satisfaction for Chinese women. Particularly, those with lower education and income, influenced by traditional Confucian values, may not find more say in fulfilling their decisions. This highlights the lasting impact of Confucian principles on family dynamics and gender roles. Despite opportunities for change, some women still adhere to traditional responsibilities, such as household chores and childcare, rather than asserting themselves in decision-making.

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The shackles of Confucian family ethics – gender roles on Chinese women

In traditional Confucian societies, women were placed in a deeply disadvantaged position compared to men, with strict expectations of obedience under the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues” code. This meant obeying fathers, husbands, and even sons if widowed. Meanwhile, men were considered the breadwinners and decision-makers, with roles outside the home seen as their domain. This power imbalance was long seen as necessary for family harmony and was ingrained in societal norms for centuries.

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Despite significant progress in recent decades, traditional gender roles still persist in China. While women now outnumber men in college graduations and increasingly join the workforce, they still shoulder the majority of household chores and face obstacles in reaching leadership positions. Female labour force participation has experienced fluctuations, and gender pay disparities have widened. Discrimination against women in the workplace persists, compounded by societal expectations for women to balance work and family obligations—a challenge less commonly faced by men.

As China experiences significant socio-economic shifts, previous advancements in gender equality are showing signs of regression. The conflict between modern beliefs and traditional values persists, influencing societal views on gender roles. Despite some progress, achieving genuine gender equality remains a work in progress, with societal norms evolving gradually.

Research methods and results

In my research, I explored the association of family decision-making power with women’s marital satisfaction, using data from the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) in 2014. We considered various factors like the educational levels and incomes of both spouses, family situations, and external influences. To ensure my findings were accurate, I used propensity score matching to balance the groups of women with high and low decision-making power in their families.

Overall, my study revealed a surprising result: there seems to be a negative link between a woman’s role in decision-making at home and her satisfaction in marriage.

I also looked at how different factors, like a woman’s education and income, as well as the community she lives in, might affect this relationship. It turns out that for women with lower education and income, and in areas where traditional values are strongly emphasised, having more decision-making power in the family can lead to lower satisfaction in marriage.

In essence, my findings suggest that for women in less privileged positions, living in communities with strong traditional values, being the ones making family decisions can be associated with decreased satisfaction in their marriages.

Men’s marital satisfaction

Investigating men’s contentment in marriage in relation to their involvement in family decisions unveils intriguing insights. Contrary to expectations, research indicates that men’s marital satisfaction isn’t necessarily tied to their level of decision-making authority at home. This underscores a cultural aspect deeply ingrained in China, where men are traditionally viewed as the primary authority figures within families, irrespective of their involvement in decision-making. Hence, men’s happiness in marriage appears largely unaffected by their role in family decision-making processes.

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Discussion and implication

My research highlights a concerning trend: women’s satisfaction in marriage is negatively associated with their level of decision-making power within the family. This finding carries significant implications for policymakers and researchers alike.

Despite significant societal changes in China, there is a reluctance to embrace more equal gender roles among women. This reluctance can be traced back to deeply ingrained cultural norms, particularly those influenced by Confucian traditions. The dominant male-centric model that has shaped China’s economic reform exacerbates this conflict.

China’s economic reform, starting in the 1970s, brought about several challenges for women, including diminished employment opportunities, inadequate childcare options, a widening wage gap, and a resurgence of traditional stereotypes. These challenges are particularly tough for women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Because these women often face more hurdles, they tend to embrace traditional gender roles where men are seen as the primary decision-makers in the family.

In the foreseeable future, the government must sustain support for women, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, across family and work domains. Embracing policies promoting gender equality is vital to empower women with equal rights, roles, and responsibilities, fostering societal balance. This necessitates ensuring equitable access to economic and political opportunities through bolstering women’s education and enforcing anti-discrimination legislation. Tailored assistance for marginalised women holds significance in cultivating a fairer environment. By affording both genders equal opportunities, the shackles of gender biases will loosen, contributing to women’s enhanced well-being.

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Navigating short-term government policies and long-term empowerment

However, government policies in the short term may differ from those in the long term, as current research indicates. My findings suggest that empowering women in decision-making could unexpectedly strain marriages, negatively affecting family and social stability in the short term. The rise in divorce rates, especially those initiated by women, may reflect the increasing bargaining power of women in China. Consequently, the government may be disinclined to enhance women’s bargaining power in the short term to maintain marital and social stability.

For example, in the face of rising divorce rates and falling marriage and fertility rates, state-run media has been used to stigmatise educated and enterprising women, perpetuating the narrative that women should prioritise family needs over careers. Traditional family values have resurfaced, reinforcing the perception of men as family heads. Additionally, unmarried women in their late twenties and beyond are often labelled as “leftover women,” leading to feelings of shame and social anxiety. These societal pressures, along with conservative views on marriage, prompt many women to marry and have children earlier. Despite progress, governmental intervention and media portrayal continue to exaggerate gender differences in capabilities, labour division, and family roles.

Limitations and future research

This paper has unearthed several intriguing insights into family power dynamics and women’s marital satisfaction in contemporary China. However, it is essential to acknowledge certain limitations within the study. First, despite my efforts to account for potential spillover effects within the family by controlling for both women’s and their spouses’ characteristics, it is possible that some variables were overlooked in my equation. For instance, factors such as openness and extraversion, which fall inside “The Big Five,” were not included, potentially introducing estimation bias by failing to control for influences on family decision-making power and women’s marital satisfaction. 

Secondly, it is crucial to recognize that the findings may depict a correlation rather than a causal relationship. Due to data constraints, I relied on the 2014 CFPS cross-sectional data for estimation, which limits my ability to address confounding factors fully and may lead to self-selection bias in women’s family decision-making power. Although I employed the PSM method, residual self-selection effects based on unobservable factors persist.

Despite these challenges, given the significance of the subject matter, this correlational study remains valuable and enlightening for scholars and policymakers. Looking ahead, I recommend that future researchers explore the possibility of identifying a suitable exogenous shock as an instrument for family decision-making power to better elucidate the causal relationship between family decision-making power and women’s marital satisfaction.

Finally, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all those involved in crafting the paper brief. Specifically, I extend my thanks to three of my students, Yinqi Huang, Qiming Zhang, and Yufei Huang, from the School of Economics at Zhejiang University of Technology, for their assistance in drafting the brief. Additionally, I am grateful to the editorial teams in the Academic for their professional comments and editorial work.


Journal reference

Li, Z. (2023). Family decision making power and women’s marital satisfaction. Journal of Family and Economic Issues44(3), 568-583.

Dr. Steven Zhongwu Li holds the position of assistant professor at the School of Economics, Zhejiang University of Technology, located in Zhejiang, China. His scholarly pursuits focus on the intersections of family, gender, and development economics, with a particular emphasis on analysing family power dynamics, well-being, and the socio-economic challenges faced by women amidst the rapid transformations occurring in contemporary China. Dr. Li’s contributions to academia are notable, with his research findings showcased in numerous esteemed peer-reviewed journals, such as the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, Applied Economics, and Social Science Quarterly.