World of sci­ence a test­ing af­fair for women

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS -

Cheng Yingqi

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 chengy­ingqi@chi­ 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.


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