Call to end gender quotas in Chinese university admissions

Female students face barriers in fields such as military studies and mining

March 9, 2021
A Chinese female university student during compulsory university military training
Source: iStock

A gender equality group has asked Chinese government delegates to propose changes to a university gender quota system that disadvantages female candidates hoping to enter some traditionally male fields of study.

It was one of many public ideas proposed in the run-up to the “Two Sessions”, an annual week-long meeting of China’s congress, which ends on 11 March. 

Sixth Tone, a Chinese news website, reported on the group’s open letter, which it said had been sent to hundreds of delegates. The letter says that 18 elite universities use gender quotas that limit the number of female students in courses related to the military, aviation, seafaring and public security. Generally, female students would need higher exam scores than their male counterparts to enter.

The congress has not addressed this issue so far, although Premier Li Keqiang said that the gender gap in retirement ages – 55 for women and 60 for men – would be closed during the current Five-Year Plan. 

The Ministry of Education addressed the issue of quotas in January when it said that universities should not “stipulate gender ratios for new students”. However, it still made exceptions for “special institutions” related to the military, defence and public security. The gender equality group said that those actions did not go far enough.

Li Tang, a PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) Faculty of Education, explained that gender quotas were traditionally used in three types of fields. Women were kept from military courses and “arduous professions” such as mining. Meanwhile, male candidates were given a leg up in female-dominated fields like languages and the performing arts.

The use of quotas was based on “traditional gender norms, stereotypes and occupational gender segregation”, Ms Tang told Times Higher Education.

The presumption was that women needed “protection” and “special care”, which would cost additional resources. There were also stereotypes about the limited roles women could play, for example as a “pretty lady police officer”.

Protecting women from “arduous work” was an idea rooted in policies from the 1950s to 1970s, when there was more physical labour, dangerous conditions and remote work locations. Today, these policies may be “out of touch with society”, Ms Tang said.

“Women are not monolithic; there are individual differences among them,” Ms Tang said. “Setting quotas may deprive them of opportunities. They should have free choice if they want to compete with men in these fields.”

She added that universities might not want to set female graduates up for failure in areas where sexism persists, thereby causing a loop of employment and education discrimination.

Ms Tang co-authored a study in Higher Education in February, showing that while women made up 40 per cent of PhD students and about half of academics in China, they were underrepresented in higher education leadership, management and top-ranked institutions. The paper cited obstacles such as “the concentration of women in ‘female fields’, lower-ranked positions and in less reputable teaching-oriented universities”.

The paper’s co-author, Hugo Horta, an associate professor of education at HKU, told THE that achieving gender equality at the top of the higher education pyramid would “take a longer time, and there are no guarantees”.

He felt there should be “policy mechanisms that provide incentives for women to feel more motivated to enter STEM fields, but also for STEM male-dominated fields to be more interested in bringing women academics in”. 

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