Holding Up Half the Sky: Gender Equality and Empowerment in Chinese Education

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Written by Bailey Piazza

China’s post-Cold War economic growth has transformed it into the second largest economy in the world. The poverty rate has improved—from 66.6% of Chinese citizens living on less than $1.90 per day to 1.9% between 1990 and 2013—and China is on track to meet its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets, with improvements in literacy, health, and access to water/sanitation sources for rural communities. China has also bolstered its principles and improved standards in terms of gender equality. In urban areas, increasing numbers of women are pursuing higher education, earner higher wages, or have started small businesses. Women and men are equal before Chinese law and women’s rights are strengthened in legislation, including within marriage since the flurry of 1950s legal reforms that abolished the traditional foot-binding practices, banned prostitution and bride sales, and legalized divorce.

However, gender equality in China has considerable progress yet to make compared to the standards of other world powers. Should China recognize the hampered potential lying within its masses of women eager to obtain education and skills, the Asian giant would experience tremendous economic results. According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), empowerment of women in developing countries is a necessary requirement for sustainable development, pro-poor growth, and the achievement of all the SDGs. Gender equality and empowered women are catalysts for augmenting development efforts. Investing in gender equality has yielded the highest returns on all development investments.

With Beijing scrambling to fortify their economy’s falling growth record, it is worth considering the secret weapon China has meekly recognized in its social arsenal: its women. Should the Ministry of Education of China and other governing bodies of the Communist government address the social pressures placed on its women, perhaps the weight of the sky would strengthen Chinese women instead of weakening their spirits and ambition to promote a greater China.

China has taken great notice of the Trump Administration. While the predominantly male CCP government is paying close attention to every move and tweet of President Trump, many women watch in admiration their newest American role model: Ivanka Trump. By Chinese standards, the President’s daughter equates to the perfect woman. Ivanka is beautiful, as her successful modeling career boasts. She is a workingwoman in a prestigious workplace, but she is also a dedicated mother. Her mannerisms are elegant and she does not ever publicly appear stressed, anxious, or under pressure. She is the ideal wife, mother, and career-woman.

However, Ivanka Trump’s popularity with Chinese women has heightened their immense social constraints. Since 2006 when the term was first coined by editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine China, the word “shèngnǚ”, or leftover women, has evolved into a cultural stigma and derogatory slang. The leftover women of China are usually characterized by the three S’s: single, seventies (born in the 1970s), and stuck. Being unmarried beyond a woman’s late twenties is social suicide and dishonorable to her family. As she ages, society devalues her worth. The concept of leftover women is inflicting a crippling pressure to put marriage and having kids before career and education, thus undermining the potential contributions of women in China’s economy.

Fortunately, the social bonds holding women back from pursuing their careers and higher education are starting to dissolve, but restrictions still remain. In a book titled Revolution Postponed, author Margery Wolf explains how standards have improved for Chinese women yet gender equality has not quite been achieved. Cultural traditions passed down through generations have bred themes of domestication and submission. These themes remain heavily relevant to daily life for women. In the ancient era of Imperial China, a woman was expected to obey her father until she was married, then obey her new husband once married, followed by her son should she become a widow. The notion of a woman achieving a higher level of education than her husband was inconceivable.

China has made several efforts to bridge the education gap between men and women, but the cancer lies in the persistent social stigma. In fact, it has become common in China to jokingly recognize three genders: male, female, and female PhD. The third was characterized by an internet commentator as “unscrupulous, hypocritical, filthy, and weak.” According to one user of Chinese social media blog Weibo, “Female PhDs are the tragedy of China’s leftover women.” In a 2013 online poll on Weibo, 30 percent of over 7,000 voters said they would not marry a woman with a PhD.

This sexist phenomenon is rooted in the Chinese tradition of female hypergamy, the inclination to marry a person of a higher social status. Although most Chinese newlyweds are of similar age and education, it is also quite common for Chinese women to marry men who are more highly educated while men tend to marry women who are less educated.

According to PhD candidate Yue Qian, 55 percent of university-educated Chinese men marry a spouse of lesser education, while only 32 percent of university-educated women do the same. Melissa Schneider, author on relationships in modern China, argues that when it comes to education, A-quality men will find B-quality women; B-quality men will find C-quality women; and C-quality men will find D-quality women. All that remains are A-quality women and D-quality men.

However, Chinese women wielding PhDs are making a strong comeback. Statistical data from the Ministry of Education of China show an increase in female PhD graduates, from about 102,500 in 2012 to 326,687 in 2015. As this army of educated women continues to increase, not only will attitudes change but also the course of China’s economic development. Increased education accounted for about half of economic growth in OECD countries in the past 50 years. This is largely contingent upon encouraging more girls and women to pursue higher levels of education and achieve greater gender equality during the time spent in education between men and women.

The trite phrase “knowledge is power” is more critical than ever. While important for individual success, the quest and insatiable desire for knowledge is the key to social revolution. In the words of Dr. Deng, a 30-year-old PhD holder from the Hunan province of China, “I think female PhD students can show another kind of life for women… Not living life through their husbands, sons, or brothers but showing women can be educated, independent, and happy.”

Photo of Zhang Xin by Sohochina on Wikimedia Commons.