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“Inside a Dongguan factory, the sexes were sharply divided. Women worked as clerks and in human resources and sales, and they held most of the jobs on the assembly line; the bosses felt that young women were more diligent and easier to manage. Men monopolized jobs like mold design and machine repair. They [also] generally held the top positions in the factory…”. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China is a notable book, written by Leslie T. Chang. It tells function stories about some women working in factories. In Factory Girls, the scene when the author illustrates how rural women are now integrating themselves faster into modern urban culture is important because it demonstrates that while women aren’t necessarily overjoyed at their collective circumstances, they also now feel free to pursue lives and goals that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago.

It’s no secret that China’s rapid industrialization is altering its economy and society at a faster rate than perhaps any nation in modern times. The almost immediate urbanization of widespread areas has changed the way Chinese citizens interact and conduct business. Whole cities spring up seemingly overnight, and villages are relocated in order to make way for new highways and superstructures. It has been only one-hundred years since the end of the last Imperial dynasty, and only forty since it was “opened” to Western civilization, but China is now home to as many metropolitan cities as any country on the planet.

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Leslie Chang demonstrates how the huge shift in geography and industry in China has affected rural cultural tropes that have endured for centuries—until now. Chinese society has long been known for its preference for boys over girls. Disturbingly, as the government only allows families to have one child in an attempt to curb population growth, there have been reports over the years of Chinese parents seeking abortions in order to prevent their only newborn from being a girl. Chang, however, travels to the factory in Dongguan to observe how cultural attitudes are shifting.

In the factory setting, a cultural preference for males apparently means little. Ironically, in this Communist country, productivity now rules, and according to Chang, factory workers have observed that women meet a higher productivity threshold, and are considered more reliable than men. Men are increasingly relegated to the bottom of the food chain, at least in this factory setting, taking menial positions like security guard and cook, while women are more likely to start on the assembly like and often work their way up to mid-level jobs in human resources and sales.

Chang’s discovery of the factory’s employment ads illustrates the difference between how men and women are viewed differently by factory management. A typical ad for a male is for a security guard position that is “ex-military, knows firefighting, [and] can play basketball”. On the other hand, a comparable ad for a new female employee may be looking for a salesperson that is proficient in English, or a receptionist that “can speak Cantonese” (56). While blatantly discriminatory, the ads are surely a separation from China’s past, when the idea of female factory workers would probably be unacceptable in of itself.

The newfound female status in a factory setting can be attributed to regional differences as much a shift in cultural perspective. Chang points out that rural customs often limit young men from traveling too far from their village, because once they take a wife, they are expected to remain there. No such restriction hampers rural women, as they are not expected to remain in their home village after marrying a man, so there is no pressure to stay in close proximity to the homestead. Statistically, while women only make up a third of migrant workers, they now “travel farther from home and they stay out longer than their male counterparts”. This has perhaps led to a different vision in what women want out of their traveling experiences. Men travel to seek higher income; women leave to seek “more experience in life”.

Chang speculates that the sexism prevalent in rural Chinese villages may actually benefit women more than men in modern urban settings such as factories. Their ability to travel greater distances and experience greater personal freedom due to less familial pressure may be part of the reason that management at the Dongguan factory has come to see women as more reliable and productive. Men may feel obligated to stay near their native village, making ends meet by selling vegetables and falling into a life of drinking and gambling. Women, on the other hand, may feel less pressure to settle down and start a family immediately, allowing them greater leeway in the amount of time they spend in the factory setting, and lending them greater incentive to move up the company ranks. Chang makes the case that while men are constantly under pressure to find a spouse and return to their village, “Women integrated more easily into the urban life,” and “came into contact into contract with a wider range of people”. They also tended to enmesh themselves more comfortably into local society, as they “quickly adopted the clothes, hairstyles, and accents of the city”.

Still, all of this is not to say that the Dongguan factory is representative of typical Chinese policies in regards to gender attitudes; it is merely anecdotal. Chang notes that in Dongguan, outside of the factory, local women “were waitresses, nannies, hairdressers and prostitutes, while “Men worked on construction sites.” There is no telling by the passage alone how many factories and industrial locations have adopted Dongguan’s policies, though one must assume the Dongguan stance is not unique, as Chinese probably aren’t test sites for changing attitudes in gender roles. Either way, one must acknowledge that while traditional roles are changing, there is still progress to be made.

Chang takes stock of the fact that there are, of course, negative ramifications to changes in gender politics in the workforce, as well as positive ones. Women in rural settings are expected to find a husband by their early 20’s, and a migrant woman who forsakes that for the ability to travel and make ends meet risks “closing off that possibility for good”. Likewise while a woman’s quest for upward mobility may improve her financial and living situation, it often leaves her in a “no-man’s-land” martially, with village women turned factory workers looking down on village men with disdain, and urban men looking down on female factory workers, according to Chang. In Dongguan, simple demographics further hamper the potential search for a husband, as 70 percent of the workforce is estimated to be female. Perhaps the biggest injustice, however, is that while Dongguan has embraced women as the core of their assembly line, human resources and sales staffs, their presence in upper management is still a non-factor, illustrating the fact that there is still a long way to go.

Still, the Dongguan factory model must be viewed as a great leap forward in Chinese gender politics in contemporary society. While most first-would countries would abhor the use of sexism in order to higher female employees to fill better positions, I believe that it can be viewed as a corrective measure, akin to affirmative action, that is necessary to balance long-term injustice in the short-term. To their credit, Chinese women seem ready to embrace their role in modern society. Still, Chang notes that there is nary a complaint among female employees in the factory, that despite continued slights, they are largely ambivalent. While perhaps they are grateful for their newfound status, they must avoid becoming complacent, and continue to take steps forward on behalf of all Chinese women.

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