Domestic Affairs

More empowered women means later marriages

By Katie Chan (
Updated: 2011-04-20 15:56
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Women in Hong Kong are making their way to break that glass ceiling and join the club of social elites and rule-makers. The pressure from society, however, has mounted for them as they decided consciously that marriage could be a matter of later or never.

Last October, the Oxford publishing house unveiled a list of new expressions or phrases to get a place in its highly regarded Chinese-English dictionary, in which "women in surplus" (剩女 shengnv) eventually made it onto the hot list after flying across the Internet for a few years. Experts from Oxford believed the ancient phrase "old spinster" is a good fit as an English equivalent for the new expression.

Originating from a country where there are statistically more men than women, this breed of "old spinsters" in the modern world have found more ways than spinning wool fleece - as their historical Scottish counterparts did - in order to cut their financial ties with men. Better urban living, access to quality education - once restricted to men only - coupled with career advances at work and improved income have apparently contributed to women's decision to not to get married.

In fact, women in Hong Kong have begun to push back the time of commitment much earlier without the harsh expression. Back in the early boom time in 1981, 69% of women in the age group of 25 to 29 were married, but the ratio slipped to 54% in 1991, 42% in 2001 and 35% in 2006. And it appeared the generation of women who started this trend continued to push the date later and later as the median age of marriage for women has increased considerably, from 23.9 in 1981 to 28.5 in 2009.

That number does not even include those who did not really want a wedding ring. As of 2006, about a quarter (24%-25%) of women in their 40s had kept their single status, compared to a tenth in 1981. Their rings of commitment have also become looser than ever as the divorce rate rocketed from 0.4 per 1,000 population in 1981 to 2.43 per 1,000 population in 2009. The Census and Statistics Department, which discussed birth rates in a report published last November, found that although married women in their 20s are less enthusiastic about having babies, low birth rates in Hong Kong have mostly been influenced by late marriage or spinsterhood.

Part of that can be explained by the surplus,literally: there were only 955 men for each 1,000 women in Hong Kong in 2009, and the government predicted that if late marriages and declining birth rate continue in future, there will be only 936 men for each 1,000 women by 2039. Sadly enough, the shrinking pool of men have shown keen interest in marriage with mainland residents, with about 22,300 couples made across the border in 2009 alone, compared with 16,500 in 1986.

Most of the cause goes to the shifting status of women. Females have shown consistent advantage over males in admission to higher education institutions in the past decade, which means females have taken the lead in a knowledge-based society. The new generation of working women of Hong Kong are not only well-informed, but also financially independent.

Every imaginable item on a family's balance sheet is going nowhere but up in the near future, with the mortgage burden for an apartment fit for a small family being most notorious, and even textbook publishers would not step back when their only clients are parents. As obstacles and challenges ahead are growing, expectation also goes up for that well-rounded partner.

Knowledge also raises fears. For instance, the challenge to start a family seems greater than ever, with more people talking about the skills and lessons to "maintain" a marriage and parenting. Step one of parenting, for instance, is abundance of time and attention for the infant. Not many mothers can keep a baby smiling and career thriving at the same time, or at least the idea of that happening is stressful enough for many.

Times have changed, and for better or worse, women have taken back the choice. Whether it is "women in surplus" or "old spinster", the age of women spinning wool for a living is definitely over, so has the way we look at women from that age.

Katie Chan is the chairwoman of Katie Chan Foundation, special adviser of Association of Former Diplomats of China and director of China Women's Development Foundation.