Old ways of thinking are holding back China’s women

Some in society should put the past behind and accept women and men as equals

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 9:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 9:49pm

Cultural tradition runs deep in China and its influence on society is plainly seen in university enrolments. While the number of male and female students in undergraduate and master’s programmes is evenly balanced, at the doctorate level, there is a noticeable drop-off in rates for women. A commonly heard refrain is that it is the result of parents pressuring daughters to not get too much education as the more they receive, the harder it will be for them to find a husband. Such thinking is arguably holding back the nation’s development.

Female students accounted for 38.63 per cent of those seeking PhDs in 2016, compared to 50.6 per cent taking postgraduate courses. In the United States that year, 52.1 per cent of doctorates went to women. The average age of first marriage for women on the mainland was 24.9 years, a figure noticeably lower than in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

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The difference may be due to economic development, with wealthier societies offering more opportunities. High living costs also discourage people from marrying until they have steady careers and incomes. But behind the mainland’s statistics could also be the oft-heard folk saying that a woman without talents is virtuous.

Virtuous in this sense is that a woman’s place is to get married, have children and take care of the family. That would seem at odds with Mao Zedong’s proclamation that “women hold up half the sky”; the founding father of the People’s Republic ushered in significant advances in his bid to attain gender equality and harness the economic potential of all citizens. But for all that has been gained, tradition still hangs heavily and in recent years, it has been given added weight by the looming demographic crunch threatened by a fast-ageing population. Authorities have been encouraging couples to marry earlier to boost the birth rate.

Women are increasingly seeking higher levels of education. But to see them as only wives and mothers ignores an incredible resource. Some in society should put the past behind and accept women and men as equals. Necessary measures have to be taken so that there can be careers as well as families.