Still Waiting for Their Half of the Sky

By Yang Yang

China Daily

Feb 17, 2014 – has been made, gender stereotypes and a lack of specific laws continue to foster discrimination against women. [China Daily]

While progress has been made, gender stereotypes and a lack of specific laws continue to foster discrimination against women, Yang Yang finds out.

In 1968, Mao Zedong presented an inspiring vision of the role of women in society when he declared they "hold up half the sky".

His words have resonated across the decades, inspiring many Chinese women to aspire to greater heights of personal achievement, both at home and in the workplace.

But lingering sexist attitudes – leftovers from a patriarchal past – and outright gender discrimination in education continue to impede their progress.

Undeniably, significant improvements have been made for women, and in today’s China people frequently mention gender equality in a variety of contexts including education and employment – not just when the unavoidable biological reality of childbirth comes up.

Yet, on the whole, women remain at a disadvantage and there is still a long way to go, according to advocates for women’s rights.

For them, nothing demonstrated that fact more clearly than remarks by a male member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Guangdong province in January.

In a discussion with other members, Luo Biliang, a distinguished professor, compared women to a commercial product with a limited shelf life. Studying for a doctorate degree would devalue a woman, he said, if she has failed to sell herself to a husband in a timely fashion.

Women, especially educated ones, were incensed by the comment.

Adding fuel to the fire, another male CPPCC member, Chen Riyuan, also a professor, said that if a woman seeking to enter an advanced degree program had no husband or boyfriend, he would advise her to get one before taking the entrance examination.

Such insertions of marriage into virtually any discussion involving women is commonplace in China, where cultural expectations and assumptions run deep – so deep that many people don’t even notice the built-in patronizing sexism that separates women from men.

Expressions may be well-meaning, whether from parents, friends, employers or teachers, but women’s advocates say they are not appropriate in arenas that ought to be strictly gender-neutral, such as employment or education.

Tracy Zheng, 31, a doctoral candidate at Nanjing University, said three of her male professors frankly urged her to find a boyfriend before it was "too late".

"I understand it is kind-hearted for them to say that to me," Zheng said. "I was disappointed and despair at this so-called gender equality. "But I kind of start to believe that maybe they were right: Being happy might be the most important thing for a woman."

That doesn’t sit well with Lyu Pin, a 42-year-old activist. For a woman, Lyu said, this sort of "being happy" means ingratiating herself with a society that persistently equates a woman’s success with marriage as if that’s all there is to life.

Risk of Scorn
Although marriage is equally important for both men and women, it is the women who seem to get saddled with the weight of responsibility for tying the knot, and who risk societal scorn or pity if they do not, according to Li Sipan, another advocate for women, who works with New Media Women Network, a Guangzhou-based NGO. That sort of "social awareness" (some might call it social pressure) in defining the fundamental value of a woman has discouraged many women from pursuing their dreams of excellence in academia and the workplace, Li said.

Female students often can achieve better scores in qualifying examinations for advanced degree programs but are more likely to be rejected at the interview stage because professors, employees or even whole schools want males. The problem was illustrated in 2012 at Renmin University, which had reduced the college entrance test score standard for male students by 13 points in an effort to achieve equality of numbers with higher-scoring females in less-popular language programs. After intense criticism, the school dumped the policy in favor of equality. In 2013, only three male students were admitted out of 14 students.

From 2000 to 2012, female students represented 51.8 percent of the 1,007 top scorers in college entrance examinations around China, and the gap continues to widen. Some universities continue to maintain a double standard favoring males.

In August 2012, Lyu, the women’s activist and lawyer Huang Yizhi asked the Ministry of Education to explain why sexual discrimination in university enrollment is allowed. The ministry sidestepped, saying that "it is in the interest of our country" to satisfy the need for professionals in certain fields.

That same month, four young women in Guangzhou shaved their heads to protest gender discrimination in enrollment and asked the ministry to be more specific. "Which special industries and positions or which universities and majors do you mean in terms of ‘approving’ the male-female enrollment rates set by some universities?" they asked. The ministry did not respond directly.

A report released in 2013 by another NGO – Women’s Media Monitor Network – found that among the 112 top universities in China, 81 practiced gender discrimination, and 34 broke the rules set by the Ministry of Education, including new regulations released in May 2013: "Except majors of military affairs, national defense and public security in some special schools, unequal female-male enrollment rates are not allowed in institutions of higher education," the rule reads. Li said the schools were in violation of the Chinese Constitution and the Education Law, but nobody took any legal responsibility to push the matter.

Under the Education Law, Chinese citizens are supposed to enjoy equal opportunities in education regardless of ethnicity, race, sex, profession, financial situation or religious belief, and the law demands that schools and related executive departments of the government guarantee equal opportunities for female students, both in enrollment and in progressing to higher schools.
But when it comes to admission to graduate schools, female students continue to encounter discriminatory attitudes and stereotyping.

A micro blog in 2013 by Feng Gang, a male professor of sociology at Zhejiang University, noted that the three top graduate students seeking an advanced degree were female. "However, according to my experience, female students seldom dedicate themselves to scholarship," Feng wrote. "Since they have taken three out of the five places for graduate students, there are only two slots left for students who really want to do scholarship but have to take the examination. I am so worried about them."

Nothing New

Disparagement of female academics is nothing new. A popular joke in China says there are three kinds of human beings in the world: men, women and female doctoral candidates – the latter being a frigid, stern pedant with an oily face and greasy hair who cannot communicate properly, a sort of Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.

But even women with more favorable physical attributes don’t necessarily amass an army of adoring suitors. Stereotypes stick.

Claire Wang, 30, earned a PhD in chemistry from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and is now conducting postdoctoral research at Nanjing Normal University. Pictures of her were posted on Tianya Forum, along with an ad seeking a boyfriend whom she could introduce to her parents during Spring Festival. She became a minor sensation online.

Though she was hailed as a striking beauty by netizens, Wang’s resume scared off plenty of candidates. An unscientific poll asked men whether they would marry such a woman. Of the more than 6,000 respondents, nearly a third (about 1,700) said no. The reason? "Too much pressure", according to a report by Nanjing newspaper Modern Express.

"In China, it has long been a traditional concept that a woman without talent is called virtuous. Even among men with very fine educations, this has been ingrained," Wang said. "They want to find a virtuous woman who will worship them and depend on them. A female doctor who has read a lot of books and mastered profound knowledge in a certain field may have a lot of thoughts beyond a man’s control. What they don’t get," she said, "is that doing doctoral study is simply work."

Wang was not surprised at the disparaging comments by Luo, the Guangdong CPPCC member, because she had met many other people who say virtually the same thing.

"In the final analysis, I think it’s because people have not put men and women on the same level," she said. "Take me as an example. It was not I who posted the photos and personal advertisement online to find a boyfriend. People said I looked very different from the stereotypical female doctor. But I think the poll correctly shows that a woman has always been at a disadvantage even if she has earned a doctor’s degree. People tend to judge a woman’s value from looks or whether she is virtuous, but ignore communication on a spiritual level, which I think is the key to a marriage."

Li of New Media Women Network shares the opinion expressed in the book Gender Lives (2009) by Julia T. Wood, a professor in University of North Carolina whose work includes gender and feminist theories. People thought that if a woman advanced her intellect, she would be "unsexed", Wood wrote.

While Luo was criticized by many scholars, feminists and women with advanced degrees, Fang Hong, a professor from Nanjing University who has been teaching women’s literature in English, had a different take.

"I think with China’s economic growth and modernization, we have entered a time when gender equality should be built based on the acknowledgment of the differences between the two sexes, which is the mode of gender equality in other countries," Fang said.

In Norway, for example, in order to encourage both men and women to look after children the government provides both sexes with maternity leave at full pay. Women have the right to breastfeed their infants at work. In that country, 72 percent of women work, compared with 62 percent in Britain, 61 percent in Germany and 45 percent in Spain.

Chen Wen, 31, a friend of Zheng’s at Nanjing University, graduated with a PhD in sociology in 2010. She got married before graduation and gave birth to a baby in August 2013.

She then decided to go back to work only two months after childbirth, but according to law, Chinese women receive at least 98 days of maternity leave. She is now teaching at a university in Nanjing’s Party School of Jiangsu Committee of the Communist Party of China.
"I could not give up the course that I taught because I finally managed to get it after applying many times," Chen said.

Somehow she manages to juggle the baby and work effectively. Zheng said she was surprised to see that Chen kept her house clean.

"She is very busy, but when I arrived at her home, it’s so clean that you cannot imagine she has a baby. I thought this is a very difficult time for any woman, but she said she didn’t think so," Zheng said.
"If all women think we are weaker than men and should therefore dodge hardship, then society can’t progress," Chen said.

Deliberate Choices

While she may not have dodged hardship, she has made deliberate choices. The university in Nanjing arranged several course options for Chen but she insisted on teaching only one because she wanted to spend more time with her baby.

While female PhDs are fighting for their careers and study, their male counterparts may not see it. Liu Hao, 29, is a doctoral candidate in National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing. "What you need in scholarship is effort, so I don’t see there is any discrimination," he said. "But I think, of course, that more efforts are needed to improve women’s social status in China, especially in terms of social awareness – including women’s recognition and positioning of themselves."

Roy Gu, a teacher at Shanghai International Studies University, said he can’t say there is discrimination against female scholars because "you can’t tell if the writers of papers or participants in projects are men or women".

"Also, I don’t think China’s society has many limits for women in pursuing careers. I think the problem is that Chinese people discriminate against full-time mothers, which is more serious," he said, because many people think women need to be in the workplace, not at home.

"I suggest that female doctoral candidates should spend more time with their babies if they have one, even if they have to delay graduation," he said.

Women’s activist Lyu dismissed the emphasis on a woman’s role as wife and mother. "Family happiness is also important for men but, unfortunately, men’s need is understated and women’s role is overstated," she said.

Lyu said wiping out sexual discrimination will require a substantial effort by the government – legislation, regulation and publicity about gender equality.

"Although this is a free market, with opportunities seemingly for everyone, in many cases women’s opportunities are taken away because of the lack of concrete law," she said. "People are talking about gender equality every day as if it has already been achieved. Sometimes if women encounter difficulties, people will attribute them to personal problems.

"Which direction Chinese women will go depends on our own efforts as well as the changes in the country’s recognition of women’s role."

There may be some tension on that point.

A survey of women’s social status in China released in 2011 by the All-China Women’s Federation found that 61.6 percent of men and 54.6 percent of women agreed that "the field for men is in public and the domain for women is within the household".

That was a marked increase of 7.7 and 4.4 percentage points over survey results in 2000.

Category : China / Socialism / Women

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