Working Women, Maternity Leave and Early Motherhood: A Case Study of Female Judges in China

April 16, 2018


In the majority of Chinese households, both husband and wife work. In fact, in the PRC women working outside home is a social norm and housewives are uncommon. Prior to the economic reforms in the 1980s, a housewife (jiatingfunu) was typically regarded as a woman of lower status, who had no ability to find a job in the city and thus had to stay at home. Housewives today include wives of the ‘new rich’ or high-salaried professionals, known as quanzhitaitai (full-time wives). Quanzhitaitai are usually educated, can find (good) jobs, but choose not to go out to work. They are a minority who may be looked up to by some working-class women, but often frowned upon by mainstream Chinese society. Unlike in the West, household work is not commonly recognised as part of social labour. In pro-natal China, despite restrictions on the number of children, women are expected to enter into heterosexual marriage, have at least one child and continue to work.


Working women in China, like their counterparts in any other civilised society, are entitled to statutory maternity pay and leave. China’s Labour Law provides 90-day maternity leave for women workers, whilst the State Council Special Rules on the Labour Protection of Female Employees offers a more favourable policy. It allows 98 days maternity leave, including 15 days of antenatal leave. An additional 15-day leave is available in case of dystocia. Female employees who bear more than one baby in a single birth are granted a further 15-day maternity leave for each additional child. In line with the national policy, local by-laws may provide varied, usually extended, maternity allowances to female employees in their regions. The new Population and Family Planning Law which came into force on 1 January 2016 provides generous maternity leave to encourage procreation. That said, policy implementation depends on the willingness of employers, and reality may not always match the rhetoric of public policy.


Statutory maternity leave in China is comparable with other countries. However, findings from my 2015 study on women judges in China suggest that going back to work after maternity leave has considerable challenges for nursing mothers. Flexible working, part-time roles and job-sharing are unavailable within the public sector. Although nursing mothers are entitled to two breaks a day at work for breast-feeding (one hour in total) during the nursing period (buruqi), this would not help those living some distance away from their workplace. Where this is the case, nursing mothers would usually have one hour (nursing allowance) deducted from their contractual daily working hours. Sometimes, being a ‘breastmilk-carrying mother’ (beinaimama) is inevitable for some female employees. One participant noted that ‘it was not possible for me to feed my baby during the day, so I pumped my milk at work, bottled it and then took it home’. In order not to be a beinaimama, one of my participants once rented a small flat walking distance from her work unit.


My research into Chinese female judges suggests that the nursing period was usually six months but varied in different workplaces, and there were no hard rules governing it. Even with this additional allowance, the women had to manage full-time work, as well as childcare and many other household tasks. These often led the nursing mothers to mental and physical exhaustion.  


Judicial work is highly demanding. Judges, especially judicial officers in the local basic courts, are typically subject to heavy caseload. Up to 50% of frontline judges are women. Young mothers often continue to work in evenings and weekends. International research suggests that female judges in other systems may sometimes take files home to work. For the Chinese female judges in my study, ‘judging from home’ was commonplace, and it meant that they had to communicate with the court users from their private space outside their usual working hours. This may have a negative impact on the women’s health and general well-being. One female participant noted that ‘hearing my phone ringing makes me nervous… These phone calls are often from parties to the cases I am handling’.


When asked what could be done to help nursing mothers in the courts, the participants commonly responded with options, such as ‘extended maternity leave’ and ‘caseload reduction’, but they felt that ‘flexible work’, ‘part-time work’ and ‘job-sharing’ would not be feasible, given the nature of their work.  


The female judges agreed that motherhood had an enormous impact on their professional lives. Internationally, the gendered reality of women in law is typically framed as one of individual responsibilities, and it is up to the individuals to decide their priority between career and family. In some jurisdictions, such as Germany, female judges have a choice to switch between full-time and part-time work, although this is not without compromises. For example, part-time judges may be relocated in chambers where they would not otherwise like to be. Also, switching to part-time work is often seen as a sign of women giving priority to family.


In China, female judges do not have such choice. As my study shows, after maternity leave, nursing mothers return to work full-time in the same place where they were several months earlier. Job security is not usually a worry for female professionals in the public sector. Typically, they receive support within their extended families. But women without support may have to endure a period of hardship. For them, having a choice would be better than no choice at all.

Anqi Shen is Professor of Law at Northumbria University, Newcastle, United Kingdom. She is author of Offending Women in Contemporary China: Gender and Pathways Into Crime (Palgrave, 2015) and of Women Judges in Contemporary China: Gender, Judging and Living (Palgrave, 2017). E-mail: anqi.shen[at] 


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