In 1968, as the Cultural Revolution wrought chaos and ideological frenzy across China, Chairman Mao proclaimed "Women hold up half the sky", a phrase of mythical status as a rallying call for equality in a communist future vision.
China does more to promote women than many nations, and has seen great progress in areas including education, freedom to marry whom one chooses and, on paper at least, gender equality. But the red line remains political power.
Fast forward from 1968 to 2012, when the all-powerful standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party strolled on to a podium at the Great Hall of the People. There were seven men in identical blue suits.
China is home to one in five of the world’s women, but a woman has never joined the political elite on the dais.
"The political representation of women is appallingly low and in fact it has gone backwards since the early communist era when you had more women represented in government than you have today," says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.
“Certainly the actual economic or political status of women is not nearly as high as the Chinese government likes to claim,” she says.
Most women speak of an improvement but are also aware of ongoing limitations.
Lily Wang (31) is married but has no children, and works in human resources in Shanghai. She describes job-market discrimination, especially against women who are married and don't have children, as "fierce".
While male and female students graduate from college with the same education, when women decide to have a baby, then take two or three years out to look after the child, they find they are less likely to be promoted or be put into important positions than men.
This is not unique to China, but Chinese society is still very traditional, so the challenges are often greater. Wang describes seeing many young girls getting married straight out of college and having babies quickly so they don’t “surprise” employers by getting pregnant while at work.
“There was one time when I went to a job interview, the interviewer openly asked me why I didn’t tell them I was married before I came to the interview, when he saw my wedding ring. I was really offended, not only because my marital status is my personal business, but it shouldn’t be used to evaluate my qualification!” she says. “And, for their information, I wasn’t married when they took my resumé.”
China has a good record on equal pay for women and men in the same position.
“So I am proud of that. The sad part is that not many women have any opportunity to be promoted, as you can tell that the executive levels in China are still dominated by men. I think in China or in any eastern country, women are more likely to be expected to become a dutiful wife at home,” says Wang.
“The problem is not just equality in working opportunities, but it’s about being genuinely equal and not fixing women and men into a certain perspective. It would be wonderful for our society to accept and admire a woman who can be strong, and a man who can be soft.”
There have certainly been advances. The death in November of the elite fighter pilot Yu Xu, the first woman to fly the country’s most advanced fighter jet, the J-10, prompted a national outbreak of mourning. In June 2012, Liu Yang became China’s first woman astronaut on the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft.
"You get such contradictions in China," says Tricia Kehoe, a China scholar writing a PhD at Nottingham University.
“You have female astronauts, a quite well-known fighter pilot. There is this facade. You have these examples of women who are excelling and breaking out of traditional gender norms, and challenging those. At the same time, though, you get a conservative pushback that tries to put women back into the home and emphasise women’s roles as mothers.
"It's a strange paradox and it's really difficult to make sense of these two pictures – a political commitment to gender equality and then what happens sometimes in practice," says Kehoe, a Wexford native who followed Chinese and sociology studies at University College Cork with a period at Sichuan University.
Gender discrimination remains a big problem in hiring, with a lot of women required to sign contracts containing clauses that forbid them to get married or get pregnant. “It’s not unknown for employers to cut salaries of women who become pregnant or for women to lose their job for having a baby,” says Kehoe.
Annie Chen is a single, 28-year-old director at a Beijing TV station and she does not find gender equality a major issue in the cities. "Where I work, at least, the deputy chief, the director, deputy director and producers are all women, so you can say 99 per cent of middle management and executive level are women. Also, the last station chief was also a woman," she says.
“At the same time, it is true that more is expected from women by their family. And maybe in some remote areas, women have less rights than men.”
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report on equality in the past 10 years, published in October, showed China has been plummeting – to 99th in the world, down from 63rd in 2006.
Li Xuan, assistant professor of psychology at New York University Shanghai, says this data shows how the status of women has been on the decline.
“In the education area, the promotion of a mixture of hard-core traditional Chinese and western models of masculinity is really pushing women out of a lot of work lines,” says Li.
Recent months have seen a new training programme offering free training for men to become teachers, because the government sees too few male teachers.
“There have been policies for men who want to be teachers, whereas there have not been corresponding policies for women who want to enter traditionally male industries such as science. That kind of explicit or implicit benefit for males in areas that have been traditionally female has been on the increase,” she adds.
“It is a pretty hard time under the current government, I have not seen any good signs towards a more positive direction, unfortunately,” says Li.
China’s economy is continuing to grow steadily, but the slowdown from the heady double-digit percentage growth rates of the 2000s, combined with a return to traditional Confucian family values, has worked against women.
“Now the economy is not doing well, they say ‘please women go back home and leave the position to men’,” says Li.
Attaining real power remains beyond the reach of women.
Only two women sit on the next level of power below the standing committee, the 25-member politburo. And just 33 central committee members out of 350 are women. Add to this the fact that there are very few women at the province party secretary or governor level – just one provincial governor out of 34.
Since the path to promotion goes through these positions, the chances are slim that a woman will be one of the figures marching onto the podium next year in the Great Hall of the People.
This is the first article in a series of four. Tomorrow: How unmarried women in China aged over 27 are challenging the depiction of them as "leftover women".