Pressure to publish forces Chinese to rethink childbearing

Women on fixed-term contracts twice as likely to have moved forward or delayed plans to start a family compared with permanently employed

October 9, 2020
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Female academics on fixed-term contracts at Chinese universities are twice as likely to modify their childbearing plans as tenured colleagues, according to a survey which indicates that the introduction of a “publish or perish” mentality in the country’s higher education system has been exacerbated by limited adoption of mother-friendly workplace practices.

The survey, completed by 453 female researchers, found that 69.1 per cent of respondents who were on insecure contracts had either moved forward or delayed their plans to have children, compared with 37.1 per cent who were permanently employed.

Yang Shen, an associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a co-author of the research, explained to Times Higher Education that Chinese higher education was “right in the middle of a radical change to the ‘publish or perish’ evaluation system”. It was only 15 years ago that some elite universities started to implement a US-inspired tenure system, in which academics are first signed to fixed-term contracts and then evaluated on their productivity. China’s state institutions traditionally offered lifelong jobs with no term limits.

While this new system has boosted Chinese universities’ citation numbers and global rankings, it has also had a negative effect on female staff, particularly younger academics looking to start families.

The study, co-authored by Bingqin Li of UNSW Sydney and published in Studies in Higher Education, also found that women on fixed-term contracts were less likely to give birth during their employment: only 32.5 per cent did, compared with 41.1 per cent of those with tenure.

Forty-eight per cent of the respondents on insecure contracts complained that their institutions did not offer a contract extension or reduced workload should they become pregnant, and 37.4 per cent were unclear whether their university had policies to support women.

One respondent said that, since “publish or perish” practices were implemented at her institution, not a single female employee on a fixed-term contract had given birth. Several respondents who were new mothers said that they “dared not take leave” while suffering from postnatal depression, while others resigned because “they could not cope with the pressure”.

Xiao Xiao, who was six months pregnant when interviewed by the researchers, said that nobody at her Shanghai-based university had spoken to her about her legally mandated maternity leave, and she did not know how to apply for it without harming her prospects. Another interviewee, Xiao Lu, was told by a team leader: “Please try not to get pregnant when doing a postdoc.”

Other respondents said that they had had their children while still studying for their PhDs because of perceptions that recruiters were prejudiced against female applicants who were married without a child.

Dr Shen said that the current situation was “not fair”, because some elite Chinese universities used Western-style tenure-track systems, but without corresponding labour protections such as better parental leave.

“Relatively speaking, universities in the West started earlier and may have developed more family-friendly practices, such as introducing a ‘stop-the-tenure-clock’ policy. Chinese universities that are new to the tenure track system often do not have guidance on how to minimise the costs for women academics,” she said.

The paper highlights the potential risks for female Chinese academics, explaining that they often do not get tenure until their mid to late thirties, by which point their fertility may be declining.

“The lack of family-friendly policies may contribute to academics’ high work pressure, especially women academics,” Dr Shen said.  

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