World of science a testing affair for women
Take a look around any college lecture hall or company boardroom in China today and you will see far more women than you would have 25 years ago.
However, in the country’s laboratories it is a different story.
Even though a growing number of Chinese women are studying science at all academic levels, relatively few go on to have careers in the field, let alone head up major government-funded projects.
Female scientists are still hindered by social and cultural factors that women in other fields have largely overcome, insiders say, the biggest hurdles undoubtedly being related to starting a family.
A State Council white paper on gender equality in 2014 said women accounted for 52 percent of undergraduate students in China that year and 51.6 percent of postgraduate students. Yet for PhD candidates the proportion of women dropped to a little less than 37 percent.
In part this can be attributed to the fact that postgraduate degree holders do not embark on a career until they are in their late 20s, about the time most Chinese women have their first child (the average age was 28 in the 2010 national census).
Leaving it late can cause complications. In China it is widely held that a woman should have her first child before she is 30. After that, single women, especially those with advanced degrees and higher incomes, can struggle to find partners.
So the timing poses an obvious dilemma, and not just for the female scientist.
Funding for scientific research is often time-sensitive, so the loss of a team member that delays a project can be a serious blow. In addition, in China employers are responsible for covering maternity pay, and funds for hiring a temporary replacement may be in short supply.
“The Chinese government allows women to take six months’ maternity leave, but I am not sure this really helps women who want to have a career in science,” said Li Peng, a professor of life sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
She warned that the current conditions open the door to potential gender discrimination.
“Any project leader will put the schedule first,” she said. “If the research team does not have the extra funds to cover a researcher leaving for six months, which is usually the case, a project leader will probably avoid recruiting a childless women to the team in the first place.”
Li, who was elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in December, has juggled her acclaimed scientific career with being a doting mother, but it has not been easy.
“It is like working two fulltime jobs. I work from 8 am to 7 pm doing experiments, writing papers, applying for grants, teaching students and attending academic meetings and activities. And then I go home to take care of my daughter (now 19). I attended her school activities and took her on trips, and things have got tough when she has been sick. But, of course, I really enjoy my time with her.”
Li is a rare case, though. According to estimates by Wang Zhizhen, a biophysicist and a fellow member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, women account for only 8 to 10 percent of China’s science professors, and just 5 percent of principal investigators leading national-level research projects.
This is not because women are less competent or qualified, but because they tend to be more easily affected by social factors than men, she said.
The situation of potential discrimination could be further compounded by the government’s decision to ease its decades-long family planning policy and allow all couples to have two children, Li suggested.
“Either female scientists have to cut their maternity leave short or the social insurance system needs to cover the costs. They are the only solutions to this problem.”
Li Na, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and applied mathematics at Harvard University, said Chinese women in many professions face a similar dilemma.
“All they can do is making a decision based on their priorities. Some principal investigators just have to take the risk that they will never be able to have children.”
She proposed that the authorities cut maternity leave to three months and make it easier for certain parents to use childcare services by offering subsidies.
A recent study showed that female scientists are in the minority worldwide.
Jin Feng, 32, a researcher with the Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites, said that of the 70 people in her department, 20 are women.
Yet Jin, a specialist in electromagnetic fields and microwave technology, said things have improved over the years.
She cited stories heard from female colleagues around in the 1970s and 1980s who told her that research facilities in those days lacked even basic amenities for the few women there were. “Some places did not even have toilets for women,” she said.
As a result, women were usually not given senior posts that required a lot of traveling, as they were unable to share accommodation with men, which was inconvenient and ultimately pushed up costs.
Most facilities have been updated to make it easier for female scientists, but Jin said some outdated attitudes have lingered.
“Certainly, there is still a bias against women in China. We are still seen by some people as ‘too emotional’ for science, while many ignore the fact we tend to be detailoriented — more so than men — which can be decisive in achieving success in this field.
“Male scientists do have their advantages, but they are to do with physical rather than mental ability. They can carry heavy equipment, for example.”
Women have proved they have the brains for any task: they have outnumbered men at China’s universities since 2009 and at its graduate schools since 2010, the Education Ministry said.
According to a 2016 survey of Chinese mainland companies by Grant Thornton, the multinational accounting firm, 30 percent of all senior executives are female, higher than the global average (24 percent). Only 16 percent of enterprises did not have women in their top management layer, down from 25 percent a year earlier.
Academic studies suggest this could be down to women being given extra credit when they show leadership skills.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org Xie Yi Born in 1967, she is a chemistry professor at the University of Science and Technology of China. She is the youngest female member of the CAS and received the L’OrealUNESCO Awards for Women in Science Award last year.