> Features > Culture

Highly educated women behind ‘labels’

REN GUANHONG | 2021-03-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In China, more and more educated women’s roles have changed and challenged traditional gender norms. Photo: CFP 


“It is good to be a mother and a wife. However, I’m a person first. I have many responsibilities and various careers that I can choose to pursue. Why is being a good wife and a good mother the only way to fulfill my duty and the only option as my career?” 
 
The famous Chinese scholar Hu Shih (1891–1962) wrote this when the first wave of feminism swept across China in the early 20th century. For the first time, women had the right to go to public schools and higher educational institutes. 
 
The founding of the PRC in 1949 opened a new chapter of Chinese women’s liberation and gender equality. China started to see a rapid rise in female education. In 2020, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed that 50.6% of postgraduate students were female, exceeding the percentage of male students for the first time. 
 
Most Chinese women born between the 1980s and 90s were the only children in their families. The material goods and care provided by their families made it possible for them to pursue higher education. Growing up in an era of full-blown market economy, intensive cross-cultural communications, and modernization in conflict with traditional values, these educated women tend to be more independent, free-spirited, and with higher levels of self-awareness and self-motivation. Today, as more and more educated women’s roles have changed and challenged traditional gender norms, stereotypes displaying gender bias are rising against these women, as evidenced by the labels given to them. 
 
'Career woman' vs 'housewife' 
In 2003, a TV series called Pink Lady was a hit in China. The two main characters in this TV series represent two different stereotypes of Chinese women in modern society. Fang Xiaoping is a nursery teacher who is obsessed with the idea of getting married and becoming a housewife. She is portrayed as always kind and ready to sacrifice for others. These attributes reflect “the virtuous wife and good mother” in China’s traditional family setting. He Ru’nan represents a stereotypical “Iron Lady” or career woman in Chinese society—capable but personally unfulfilled. 
 
Today, Chinese women are still struggling between the roles of “career woman” and “housewife.” The “universal two-child policy” was implemented in 2016. Under intense competition at work and with the added responsibility of taking care of more children, women are facing increasing pressure to juggle their jobs, their children’s needs, and their housework. Many women live a grueling life, rushing between the workplace and home. Some couples choose to live with their parents to help them with childcare. However, generation gaps and conflicting attitudes towards raising children can cause many new problems. 
 
The dilemmas that highly educated women face seem to be more severe. They tend to have a deeper understanding and a higher expectation of careers, marriages and family. On the one hand, as the beneficiaries of education, they often attach more importance to their children’s education, and recognize their key role in childcare and housework. On the other hand, they want to have a life beyond their family and kids, which gives them a stronger sense of self-accomplishment and fulfillment. In addition, women are still constrained by traditional gender roles. 
 
It is incorrect to present only one side of the picture—either obsessed with their careers or devoting all their time to household production—because most highly educated women value work life and family life as equally important. A recent social study shows that many educated women are willing to adjust their schedules and make compromises when the needs of their children and other family members collide with work. However, they insist on working, not only to run the family, but also to remain financially independent. 
 
'Third gender'
“They say that there are three genders in China: male, female, and female PhD.” A Chinese female PhD candidate wrote these words on a social media platform and ended her words with an angry-faced emoji. 
 
“Third gender” is derived from a stereotype, which is also a malicious joke about female PhDs, suggesting that they are not feminine enough. As this nickname is discussed and spread through the internet, a stigma has become attached to highly educated women, particularly the financially successful. Some TV shows and media reports stereotypically portray highly educated women with more “male” characteristics (e.g., competitive and tough) and a poor ability to deal with relationships and marriage, such as the aforementioned character He Ru’nan in the TV series Pink Lady, who is nicknamed “Manly Woman” (nanrenpo). Ironically, her name “Runan” in Chinese has the same pronunciation as a term which means “like a man.” 
 
Experts say that the label of “third gender” is a worrying reflection of conservative attitudes toward women. Some traditional ideas that have existed for thousands of years, such as “ignorance is a woman’s virtue,” are still influential today. These ideas encourage women to focus on their roles as mothers or wives. Mass media also plays a part in highlighting the images of the “third gender,” as media pays more attention to their physical appearances, whether or not they are married, and personal relationships, than to their academic or career achievements. 
 
'Leftover women' 
“Leftover women”, or “Sheng Nü” in Chinese, was one of 171 new Chinese terms included in the Report on the Language Situation in China published by the Chinese Ministry of Education in 2007. It is a derogatory term that classifies women who remain unmarried in their late twenties and beyond. Although China Women’s News, a newspaper run by All China Women’s Federation, listed the “leftover women” as a term of gender discrimination that should be prohibited, online and on TV shows people still tend to make jokes about “leftover women.” 
 
Among all the women who are branded as “leftover women,” the ones who are well educated and financially successful have been put in the spotlight by Chinese media for years: Why are those excellent women “left over?” 
 
According to some experts, most highly educated women, compared with less educated women, spend more years pursuing an advanced education. For example, a woman with a postgraduate degree in China usually has spent 19 years on schooling. After she graduates from college and starts to work, she probably is in her late twenties. Moreover, women who have focused on academic research may have a narrower social circle. 
 
Other social scientists associated the phenomenon of the “leftover women” with traditional views of marriage. Yang Ge, a research fellow from the Institute of Population and Labor Economics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, noted that according to traditional behavioral norms, women tend to marry someone with a stronger education background, a higher income or even from a higher social class than themselves, while men tend to marry someone with a lower education and a lower income. Therefore, men at the bottom of society could be eliminated from the marriage market. Now, that same phenomenon is emerging for women at the top of society. 
 
Another reason may lie in the emotional demands of highly educated women. As higher levels of self-awareness help women to understand their own needs and desires in a relationship, they may have higher demands regarding the emotional intelligence of their partners. 
 
As China has a long history of conservative and patriarchal views of marriage and family structures, including marrying at a young age, social and family pressure has been a source of social embarrassment and social anxiety for many unmarried women. In response to highly educated women in China who enjoy their independence and feel comfortable waiting for the right man, some critics blame education, saying that studying is useless. However, these women don’t agree. They created a new label for themselves: “No Compromise.” “We don’t want to make compromises because of age or social pressure,” a woman wrote on a social media platform. 
 
Promising future 
Although highly educated women are sometimes frustrated by gender stereotypes and negative attitudes toward them, it should be noted that the country is pushing for gender equity and women’s empowerment. 
 
Over the years, China has progressively improved its laws and regulations, developed public policies, worked out development plans and steadily pressed forward with gender equality. Recently, a woman in China received a compensation for household labor during divorce proceedings. The legal judgment was made according to China’s Civil Code, which took effect in 2021. The case feeds into a larger debate in China as it is the first ruling which put a monetary value on unpaid labor—mostly done by women—at home. Many netizens hailed the judgement, taking it as recognition of housewives’ work. 
 
Meanwhile, public awareness about women’s rights and their roles in society is growing rapidly in China. Employers pay more attention to improving their female employees’ working conditions, such as providing a lactation room for employees who are nursing mothers. After witnessing how difficult it is for women to balance their careers with family obligations, more and more men have begun sharing childcare and housework. 
 
Although gender bias is still a topic of heated discussions, there are rising voices against gender discrimination. In 2020, a dialogue in the TV series If There Is No Tomorrow stirred controversy among Chinese netizens, with many criticizing the dialogue for stigmatizing feminist rights and confusing the concept with gender equality. 
 
Scientific and technological advancement is providing more opportunities for women to shine. In recent years, an increasing number of highly-educated women quit their jobs and become housewives. But not all of their time is spent on childcare and housework. Internet makes it possible for women to work from home with careers in  Ecommerce, or running official or public accounts on WeChat or Sina Weibo. 
 
With their knowledge and skills, highly educated women are playing a significant role in China’s economic and social development. For the future of Chinese women, they have high expectations—only by working hard can women make continuous progress and contribute to more sustainable growth for society. 

 

Edited by REN GUANHONG