Discrimination against educated women on rise

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am

Female PhDs facing increasing bias in social lives and the job market

They may turn out to be the country's answer to Nobel laureate Marie Curie or French author and social conscience Simone de Beauvoir, but mainland women with advanced degrees are increasingly being confronted with discrimination in their social lives and the job market.

Highlighting misconceptions about women in the upper academic echelon, those with PhDs are commonly labelled the 'third sex', meaning they are less desirable. They are also called 'UFO' - a new English acronym taking hold on the mainland meaning 'ugly, foolish and old'.

At the continuing NPC and CPPCC meetings, the misperceptions of highly educated women - only one aspect of rampant discrimination against women on the mainland - are becoming a major issue of contention.

Yesterday Shaanxi NPC deputy Qu Yajun questioned the need for a five-year discrepancy in the retirement ages for women and men working in the civil service, subjecting women to an earlier retirement and lower pension payouts.

Chinese society is dominated by a centuries-old belief that 'it's a virtue for a woman to have no knowledge at all', and a recent variant - that 'it's better to have a good marriage than to have a promising career'.

Li Xiao , a PhD candidate in criminal law at Peking University, said she was passionate about her studies, but her pending degree had already narrowed her career prospects. She said doctoral studies generally hampered women's prospects, because they were much older than fresh college graduates by the time they began looking for work.

Ms Li added that people were reluctant to hire female PhD holders because they expected them to get married and quickly have a baby.

She did not worry about the misperceptions of highly educated women, particularly as she was married, 'but the reality for many women like me is that even a guy with a PhD tends to find a girlfriend with a lower degree', she said.

Zhong Min , a third-year PhD candidate from Tsinghua University majoring in mechanical engineering, said she was not particularly concerned about her job prospects, 'but the real challenge for women with higher degrees is to carve out a normal social life'. The 25-year-old said she was still young and had not had bad personal experiences, but many of her schoolmates were having problems finding a boyfriend.

'A lot of guys just back off when they realise you're going to have a higher degree,' Ms Zhong said. 'I try to convince myself that [the women] failed because they didn't meet the right one, but I'm aware of the general misperception among guys.'

Henan University professor Zhang Qianhong - a delegate to the China People's Political Consultative Conference - said discrimination against women was still widespread on the mainland, and injustice against women in the top echelon had worsened due to persistent stereotypes. Professor Zhang, who has a PhD, said she had seen many women with higher degrees struggle to find decent jobs and lead meaningful personal lives.

According to official data, there were more than 1 million postgraduate students at university at the end of 2006, with women accounting for between 30 and 40 per cent.

Zhang Wenwen , a graduate student at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Trade, said finding work was even harder than when she first graduated from college as an undergraduate student, two years ago, because employers often favoured men.

Ms Zhang said employers often made no secret about their opinion that only males need apply or that men were preferred. 'During job interviews they even say things like 'You girls will get to 30 very soon and won't work for long before getting married or having a baby',' she said.

Professor Zhang said such blatant discrimination would be unthinkable in other countries, so better legal protection for women and a change in public attitudes were urgently needed. 'Women as a group should also try to build on their strengths and qualities and ... to adapt,' she said.