Prioritise women for research funding, Chinese universities told

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China has said that women should be given priority in research funding and senior appointments, as part of a wide-ranging plan to tackle gender inequality in academia.

A long list of recommendations for universities and science institutes says that female scholars should also be given better access to overseas exchanges and speaking slots at conferences.

The policies were released in a statement issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology and the All-China Women’s Federation, along with eight other departments and three prestigious national academies representing science, engineering and the social sciences.

It acknowledges that women suffer from “insufficient policies” and “bottlenecks in their career development”. While undergraduate student admissions have reached gender parity, academia’s leaking pipeline means that women make up just 10 per cent of scholars given additional funding by top academic bodies.

The policy specifically calls out the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, whose academic staff are only 5 to 6 per cent female.

The government’s new goal, the statement says, is “a group of top female science and technology talents with world influence”.

The most concrete actions in the policy are the reversal of age limits that are seen as failing to adequately accommodate childbearing and parenting. These include ceilings on who can apply for “young researcher” grants, as well a requirement for women to retire at 55, five years before men.

Under the current system, working mothers may miss out on crucial funding in their twenties and thirties, and are then made to retire in their fifties, making it difficult for them to reach professorships or leadership positions.

The pressure to amass a certain number of research citations by a certain age is so great that 69 per cent of female academics on short-term employment contracts changed childbearing decisions to fit work obligations, according to research published last year. Female academics without tenure are less likely to have children in general.

The interviews conducted for that 2020 research project unveiled staffing biases that went beyond policy. One interviewee said that nobody at her university had discussed maternity leave with her, although she was six months pregnant. Another was told by a supervisor to “please not get pregnant” during her postdoc.

There has been growing public pressure for the government to address gender equality.

In March, a gender equality group asked lawmakers to change a quota system used by some universities to minimise the number of female candidates in traditionally male fields, by allowing male applicants in at lower test scores. 

In February, two University of Hong Kong (HKU) researchers said in a report that the Chinese government had “missed opportunities” to promote better policies, particularly in terms of age restrictions and a lack of promotion opportunities.

Li Tang, a co-author of that paper and a HKU doctoral researcher, told Times Higher Education that the latest developments “demonstrate the government’s concern [over] women scientists’ interests and development”.

Ms Tang, a mother of four, called the policy a “good start”, but added that “perhaps much more is needed to address realistic needs for women scientists, such as family-friendly policies at the university level”.

The policy calls for more flexibility in leave, assessments and evaluations, and also asks universities to be more open to hiring expectant or new mothers. It also says that institutions that create family-friendly work environments – for example, on-site childcare and breastfeeding rooms – will be given government benefits.

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