Gender Roles in Economics

The Labor Standards Law guarantees pay equity (M. J. Cohen, 1988), but in the mid-1990s women earned only 66.9% of men's monthly earnings (Council of Labor Affairs, 1995). Equal employment opportunity legislation has not been enacted, and during 1984-94 women's participation in the labor market remained around 45.5% (Council of Labour Affairs, 1995). Also, the majority of women are located at the lower end of the production relationship and are not owners of the means of production (Chou, 1994). (While statutory law gives daughters the right to inherit a family's property, customary law demands that they "voluntarily" give up this right in favor of their brothers [H. X. Chen, 1996].)

Several factors contribute to women's disadvantaged economic position. First, the predominant form that businesses take in Taiwan is the family firm and, because this enterprise replicates the domestic unit's gendered division of labor, it fosters a stratified workforce (Greenhalgh, 1994; Lu 2001). Second, women's education is limited relative to men's, and education plays a key role in placing people in occupations (Yu, 2001a). Third, managers use ideas about gender to promote hierarchy in the workplace, relegating women to jobs that are low paid with little opportunity for promotion (R. S. Gallin, 1996). Fourth, ingrained understandings of women and men's roles means that women, to accommodate their reproductive responsibilities, accept part-time and/or temporary work that preclude their career development.

Despite these obstacles, women's productive activity has subsidized Taiwan's "economic miracle." A labor shortage in the 1970s prompted the government to implement the "Living Rooms as Factories" program (Hsiung, 1996). Designed to bring "surplus" labor into production, the program drew large numbers of married women into the labor force as factory workers and industrial outworkers. In fact, since the 1970s, the participation of married women in the work force has increased at a faster rate than that of single women (Hsiung, 1996). This increase reflects the fact that many married women must work to sustain the family's living standard (Yu, 2001b). Because most businesses are small scale and production tends to be labor intensive, earnings are relatively low and an average monthly pay check is insufficient to meet a family's consumption needs. Thus married women's income ensures the viability of the family. It also ensures the viability of family firms that depend on women's unpaid and underpaid labor to survive. Capitalism and patriarchy intersect on the island, supporting Taiwan's comparative advantage in the world system and reproducing traditional family hierarchies and gender relations (Cheng & Hsiung, 1992; Diamond, 1979; R. S. Gallin, 1984a, 1989; Gates, 1979; T. L. Hu, 1984).

Since the 1990s, however, Taiwan's competitive advantage has declined as wages and production costs have risen. As a result, increasing numbers of businesses, attracted by low-wage labor and minimal production costs in Southeast Asia and China, have transferred production offshore. This industrial transformation has left numerous women laborers unemployed and laid off without severance pay. It has also created a crisis in marriage; many Taiwanese businessmen support mistresses overseas.

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