As Chinese women seek to break into male professions, schools stand in the way

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When Vincy Li applied to a prestigious graduate program at the Police Academy in China, she knew her chances of success were low. After all, the school has set quotas, typically capping the number of female students at no more than a quarter of the student body.

But his chances were even lower. When the school released admissions results earlier this year, only five of the 140 students who had tested the program – less than 4% – were women, even though more than 1,000 women had applied. And the woman with the lowest score scored 40 points better than the lowest-rated male candidate who was admitted, according to the school’s admission data.

For Ms. Li, the message was clear: Women were not welcome.

“The students were totally shocked,” said Ms. Li, who had spent over a year preparing for the exam. “I don’t understand why they don’t even give us these academic opportunities.”

Across China, women’s educational attainment has skyrocketed; female undergraduates now outnumber men significantly. But women still face significant barriers to accessing training and university programs – with outright quotas on their numbers in certain areas – as they seek to break into the traditionally male-dominated professions in the country. .

And it thwarts China’s long-standing efforts to promote the advancement of women in a country where, as Mao said, women hold “half the sky.”

Civil aviation related degree programs often specify that they only seek male applicants, with the exception of flight attendant training. Military and police training academies publicly impose gender quotas which translate into much stricter admission criteria for female students.

Women who applied to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force University of Engineering in June scored 127 points higher than their lowest-rated male counterparts in the gaokao, the national exam which is the most important criterion for admission to Chinese universities, according to data from a provincial education department.

Reached by phone, a member of the police academy’s program staff, Ms. Li, applied to her. Additional students had been admitted through a separate process that relied on recommendations rather than testing.

But even then, women made up only 17% of the police academy’s program last month, down from 38% in September 2020. The drop came after the university announced last September that it would curtail the share. women she would accept 15 percent, later citing the high risks and pressures associated with policing.

The different standards are not limited to police or military academies. Even some art schools have imposed 50/50 male-to-female ratios to reduce the growing share of female students.

An informal survey of the 116 best Chinese universities, published by a group of feminist activists in February, found that 86 university majors at 18 universities have gender-based admission requirements.

The practice of favoring male applicants has long attracted criticism. Ten years ago, after news reports reported universities favoring men, public outrage and protests led the government to ban admissions based on gender in most fields.

Private universities in the United States have also recognized the maintenance of male-to-female ratios, especially as the pool of more qualified applicants has grown.

But in China, the problem has become particularly delicate in recent years, as growing adherence to feminism has collided with the Chinese Communist Party’s growing campaign for social control. Activists citing gender biases have been censored online and officials trumpeted the virtues of traditional gender roles.

After the feminist group published its report online on biased admissions policies, an officially sanctioned crackdown by social media companies on “extreme feminism” led to its swift erasure from the web.

“Progress has been made before, but it was not enough,” said Xiong Jing, who participated in the 2012 protests and was editor-in-chief of Feminist Voices, a outlet that was shut down in 2018. Push back now, she added, “is almost impossible”.

While the education ministry banned most gender-based admissions in 2012, it allowed them in “special fields of study,” including those affiliated with the military or related to national defense.

Restrictions are also allowed in areas that the government considers dangerous, such as mining, shipping or those “in need of a certain gender balance”. Broadcasting schools, for example, argue that pairing female and male presenters is the industry standard.

But critics say schools have applied those criteria too liberally.

Take the China University of Communication, often called the “cradle of China’s broadcasting talent.” To achieve gender parity for its television production program, the university admitted women who scored on average 20 points higher than men, according to admissions data.

Earlier this year, the university was also accused of setting a lower bar for male applicants to the animation design program after women made up 70 to 90 percent of the major.

In March, when the school released the screening results, students were surprised to find that the proportion of male applicants qualified for pre-admission had jumped to 50%.

Activists have asked why gender-based quotas should exist in any field, even those related to the military.

Policymakers assume that “women should be caregivers and expect men to fill leadership roles,” said Professor Shen Hsiu-hua, a gender specialist at National Tsing Hua University in China. Taiwan.

Indeed, some defenses of quotas favoring men rely heavily on traditional ideas about gender relations.

In Guangxi province, a university this year started offering a free, male-only degree in nursery education. The announcement follows state media coverage of a perceived “masculinity crisis” among young Chinese men, which they blame in part on female teachers.

After the uproar over the University of Communication’s animation program, a speaker, Lin Bai, argued that favoring men also benefits women. Or at least their social life.

“A small adjustment in the male-to-female ratio to ensure that young women on campus have guys to date is acceptable,” he wrote on social media platform Weibo.

But Professor Shen stressed that there are no equivalent policies favoring women in male-dominated majors.

China, she said, wants “more men in every industry.”

“For the increasingly authoritarian government,” she added, “China must project an image of manhood and strength. “

Others cited more pragmatic reasons for imposing gender ratios.

Zhang Dongshen, who runs a tutoring agency known to help students gain admission to police academies, said the lack of jobs for policewomen justified their low admission rates.

“I also feel bad for my students,” Zhang said. “But policymakers don’t want them to end up without a job.”

The result is a vicious cycle, as restrictions on admitting women fuel restrictions on employment for women, and vice versa, Professor Shen said.

Some women seeking to enter traditionally male dominated fields seek opportunities abroad instead.

In 2018, flight attendant Lian Luo decided to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot.

She attended a hiring session for pilot trainees organized by a national airline, but staff asked her and other candidates to leave.

Eventually, she continued training in South Africa and graduated at the top of her class.

“There are no such opportunities in China for women like me,” she said. “Nowhere to start. “


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