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Work experience in cities reshapes gender perception in rural areas

XU QI | 2017-04-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Changing roles


Cartoon by Liu Zhiyong; Poem by Long Yuan


Moms go out to win the bread,
And some dads stay home and cook instead.
Traditional household roles are changing,
And gender norms, rearranging.
Migrant workers flock to cities with ambition,
Waving goodbye to long-standing tradition.
A more equal world, women wish it were so,
But, men benefit from the status quo.
Can society break tradition’s spell?
It’s something only time will tell.


Since China initiated the reform and opening-up policy, millions of migrant workers have flowed to cities with the goal of working and developing amid the rapid industrialization and urbanization. The massive migration of rural youth has formed the most crucial demographic phenomenon in the development process of the Chinese economy, greatly contributing to the country’s sustainable economic growth.

Also, their work experience in urban areas subtly reshapes their concept of marriage and family while greatly impacting their choices when dealing with relationships or deciding whether to have a child. This article mainly probes how the work experience in cities affects gender perception of rural youth.


Gender perception refers to human attitudes and understanding of social norms and social roles with regard to gender. It is also an important index for gender equity in society.

In past studies, scholars from China and abroad have conducted much insightful analysis of the current situation, development tendencies as well as factors influencing gender perception of Chinese people. They have found that there are clear differences between rural and city dwellers in terms of their understanding of gender equity, and rural people tend to be more traditional.

For example, rural people are more willing to accept the traditional gender roles that men are responsible for making money while women are in charge of household affairs. They may show greater affection for boys and greater tolerance for gender inequity in terms of supporting parents and inheriting property. However, the increasing number of migrant workers is breaking the social segregation between rural and urban areas. And rural people may change their traditional gender perception in the process.

According to the life course approach, also known as life course theory, people will go through a lot of important events, such as employment, marriage and enrollment in school. Each crucial moment is a turning point in our orbit and will have spillover effects in the future.

It is indeed a crucial issue for farmers to go to cities and work there. They leave traditional agricultural production and work in modern industrialized factories. Their experience not only transforms the production pattern that rural youth formerly relied on but also inevitably pushes them into unfamiliar urban space.

American sociologist Alex Inkeles argued that living in cities will directly influence human perception and behaviors. At this point, their migration is a process of resocialization in which people leave behind the traditional rural society and learn to accept the values and lifestyles of modern cities. From the perspective of modernization theory, we can assume that working in cities can help to modernize the traditional gender perceptions of farmers.

However, empirical studies find it is not often the case that human values and behaviors can be modernized in the way that modernization theory predicts, because traditions are not as powerless as the theorists predicted. Traditional perception tends to seek its extent and development in the process of modernization despite the adjustments and compromises it may make in a modern context.

Chinese families have been dominated by patriarchy for a long time, and the traditional gender norms are deeply rooted in the minds of villagers. It still requires exploration whether and to what extent that urban employment may influence traditional gender perception.


We adopt statistics of the third investigation of the social status of Chinese women in 2010 to research this issue. The investigation selected random samples across China and researched rural people who had worked in cities. It discusses how the work experience in cities affected rural gender perception in the following three aspects.

First of all, gender perception is a multidimensional notion, and we measure it in terms of family name inheritance, property inheritance as well as gender roles. Second, in addition to the differences in gender perception between rural people who have worked in cities and those who have not, we investigate how age, travel distance and whether returning to one’s hometown influence gender perception. Last of all, we also analyze the impacts on men and women and compare them.


Three conclusions have been made.

At first, work experience in cities weakens rural villagers’ traditional perception of family name inheritance and gender roles but fails to change property inheritance, which is central to patriarchal family norms. In the research, subjects had similar individual features, social and economic status as well as family background. Work experience in cities has a huge impact on the dimensions of family name inheritance and gender roles while barely affecting perception of property inheritance. Therefore, mass migration helps to change but not overthrow the traditional understanding of gender. Men still have more favorable status, particularly when it comes to core values related to economic benefits.

Comparitive analysis revealed that the experience of working in cities has greater influence on women than men in terms of family name inheritance and division of gender roles. The results conform to the anticipation of rational choice theory that women benefit from gender equity, which motivates them to learn and accept the relatively equal gender perception in cities. Hence, they may undergo persistent and radical value changes after working in cities. However, male migrant workers are prone to resist modern gender understanding based on their benefits, to some extent hindering them from changing values.

Finally, such characteristics of migrant workers as age, migration distance and whether they have returned home have differing levels of influence on gender perception. Specifically, the younger migrant workers are and the further they travel, the more likely they are to allow their children to adopt family names of mothers and agree with equal gender roles. In contrast, working experiences in cities have no significant impact on these two aspects.

Thus, work experience in cities results in a persistent and stable influence on child rearing and gender roles. However, research on property inheritance shows that it is hard to radically change migrant workers’ traditional perspective on property inheritance no matter how old they are when they leave for cities and how far they migrate. Also, they start to increasingly believe in the traditional concept that sons should inherit property upon their return to rural areas.


Drawing on the aforementioned three conclusions, we can find that working experience in cities helps to transform the traditional gender perspective of rural people, but the change is not easy. Results of the analysis show that there are at least two hurdles.

Traditional patriarchal family concept will not surrender without resistance. Its transformation and integration with modern thought should be gradually advanced. The traditional gender perspective of Chinese people is a complicated system with multiple dimensions and layers. In circumstances like this, we must consider various factors and conduct comprehensive analysis when studying how the experience of migrant workers affects gender perception.

At the same time, men find it difficult to give up the traditional gender concept because they benefit from it. They are reluctant to accept the modern gender perspective that treats men and women equally or may instinctively resist it. However, a form of gender equity that only women agree with is not fair enough. At this point, it is one of the priorities to free rural men from the constraint of the traditional concept and make them believe that men and women are equal, thus promoting the transformation of gender perspective in rural areas.


Xu Qi is an assistant research fellow from the School of Sociology at Nanjing University.