Women account for just over a third of PhD students in China even though they make up just over half the number of postgraduate students – a disparity
Women account for just over a third of PhD students in China even though they make up just over half the number of postgraduate students – a disparity some academics blame on social pressures, misogyny in the profession and even a fear of being unable to find a husband.
That figure stands out because women in China have reached parity with men at every other level in education – elementary, high school, college and graduate school.
According to Ministry of Education figures, women accounted for only 38.63 per cent of overall PhD students in China in 2016, but accounted for 50.6 per cent of all postgraduates.
But in the same year in the United States, women were awarded more than half of doctorates – 52.1 per cent – for the eighth straight year, according to figures from the Council of Graduate Schools.
Some observers say marriage and children change women’s priorities, but others point to the structure of China’s higher education system.
“There is a misogynist rhetoric against female PhDs who are labelled as a ‘third type’ of person, not male, not female,” said Xiao Hui, a professor of modern Chinese literature and culture at the University of Kansas.
“The social stigma attached to female PhDs has caused a rising fear of becoming a ‘leftover woman’ among young women,” she said.
“The pressure to get married and have children is bigger for female PhD students,” according to a 25-year-old cell biology PhD candidate at Peking University.
The postgraduate, who asked only to be identified by her surname Jiang, is one of more than 130,000 female PhD students in China.
She graduated from Peking University’s School of Life Science – one of the best in the country – in 2015 and subsequently enrolled in its six-year PhD programme.
She said family and marriage could be a distraction for female academics, especially in subjects like hers that require a lot of time to be spent in labs, such as her own.
“Maybe it’s not a concern for those who are determined to devote their time to science,” said Jiang, adding that some leading female academics were “still single and they don’t seem to be bothered”.
Iris Yan, a 26-year-old PhD candidate in comparative literature at Peking University, said her family had not pressured her to have children, but said she still felt aware of the passing of time.
“Female PhDs are like, ‘ah, I will be at least 30 when I have my first child,’” she said.
In China, which has seen a revival of conservative family values, marriage and reproduction are still viewed as a woman’s top priorities, Xiao said. “Those are considered a woman’s supreme duties that define her femininity and guarantee the essential meaning and value of her life.
“As a result, women are expected to shoulder more of the burden of domestic work, and have to work harder if they wish to pursue an academic path,” she said.
Angharad Fletcher, a PhD student who specialises in gendered labour at King’s College London, echoed that claim.
“While education and accomplishment is, of course, venerated, I think many women still battle against the stigma of becoming sheng nu, despite the positive rebranding of that term in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” Fletcher said.
Sheng nu refers to the so-called “leftover” women who remain unmarried beyond their late twenties.
Fletcher said that women all over the world found it difficult to strike a balance between academic work and family commitments.
“The time you would hope to be devoting to your academic career [mid-twenties to mid-thirties], is also the time many families would expect you to be seeking a life partner,” she said. “It takes a focused woman to shut out the background noise of these expectations, and it is difficult.”
Yan said it was hard for women to defer motherhood, but “if you have the money and resources to freeze eggs, you may be well-positioned to have a child [later in life]”.
However, a further complication comes from China’s ban on unmarried women from freezing their eggs, which has forced single women in the mainland to go further afield to undergo the procedure.
Xu Duoduo, a sociology professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said there were other factors to consider beyond the demands to marry and have children.
“The [government-approved] quota for PhD programmes is mainly given to Stem subjects,” she said, referring to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In China, as in many Western countries, fewer women are studying these subjects.
Science and engineering subjects account for about 60 per cent of overall doctorate studies in China, but women make up less than half the students in these fields – 40 and 29 per cent respectively – according to education ministry figures.
“The belief is that women are under larger pressure to get married and have children, but if you look at the figures, the direct cause is fewer women are studying the subjects,” Xu said.
Ivy Wong Wang, a psychology professor at the University of Hong Kong, suggested the psychological differences between the sexes could be deterring women from studying Stem subjects.
Women tend to underestimate themselves, she said, giving the examples of schoolgirls who typically report higher levels of anxiety about studying maths and science subjects, even though their overall grades are roughly the same as boys’.
Sylvia Beyer, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said, “Underestimating their ability is certainly a factor in women’s lower participation in Stem subjects and careers.”
Beyer highlighted the situation in the United States, where women have made up most of the college student population since 1979. But in 2017, they accounted for only about 30 per cent of Stem degree holders, according to figures from the US Department of Education.
Wong said lower levels of concern about gender equality worsened this disparity in Stem participation across East Asia.
The enduring influence of Confucian culture – in which wives are traditionally seen as dependents of their husbands, whom they must obey – may also be exacerbating the problem.
Across the region there are differences when it comes to gender equality and marriage. Women in China get married at the age of 23.9 on average, markedly younger than in Japan (28.8), South Korea (28.9) and Taiwan (29.2), a 2010 study found.
“In China, given that adults are very involved in [their children’s] studies, they may make a lot of comments that transmit gender stereotypical beliefs,” Wong said.
Beyer said the ongoing problem of sexual harassment was another factor deterring women from PhD studies.
The rise of the #MeToo movement in China has led to a string of complaints about senior academics at some of the country’s leading universities.
Chinese professor sacked as #MeToo gains traction on campuses
In some cases the academics have been disciplined or even sacked, but in others universities have been criticised for dismissing or trying to play down the accusations.
“I am quitting academia after graduation because of my adviser’s sexual harassment,” said a 25-year-old female PhD student in developmental biology, who asked to be identified as Zhang.
“Other girls in the lab where my adviser serves as a principal investigator are experiencing sexual harassment as well,” she said. “But they won’t talk because the adviser decides whether and when we can graduate and get the PhD degree.”
A principal investigator is the holder of an independent grant and the lead researcher who oversees the grant project in sciences, like a laboratory study or a clinical trial.
Zhang said she had been diagnosed with severe depression after the adviser accused her of being “mentally ill” for reporting the sexual harassment to the school’s committee.
So far her complaint has had no effect, but she has warned her supervisor that she now carries recording equipment and will publicise any repeat incidents.
Xu, the sociology professor from HKUST, warned that a hostile academic environment could become self-sustaining.
She said men were more likely to continue their studies after receiving a PhD, which meant they “later become leaders of the labs and school departments, which contributes to the sexual harassment in colleges”.
But at Peking University, 25-year-old Jiang remains optimistic and said she looked to role models such as Li Qing, a leading academic in her own department, and Yan Nieng, the renowned structural biologist who is now a professor at Princeton University.
Yan previously taught at Tsinghua in Beijing, one of the country’s leading universities, where she became the university’s youngest PhD adviser while still in her late twenties.
“I think more female scientists in China will be encouraged by her,” Jiang said.