Introducing China’s Third Species (Female PhDs)

Jokes about women PhDs are many in China. The most famous and ignominious is that earth has three species – men, women and women PhDs. A well-known writer of kungfu novels, Jin Yong, writes of women with bachelor’s degrees as Huang Rong (clever and beautiful), but by the time of reaching PhD level female characters become comparable to Meijueshitai – old nuns with kungfu skills whom are cruel, fierce and ugly.

Amid such a challenging cultural backdrop, are Chinese women put off? Reportedly many. However, there are nonetheless many tens of thousands of women in China doing PhDs.

2012 2013*
PhD Graduates 51,713 139,411
Female 19,250 49,180
PhD Entrants 68,370 n.a.
Female 25,489 n.a.

Table 1 presents 2012 data from China’s Ministry of Education offering an overview of the ostensibly brave Chinese women embarking on a PhD within China. That year, 2012, the ratio of women with the total number of new PhD candidates and graduating PhDs was a consistent 37%. The number of graduating female PhDs in 2013, amid an apparent graduation surge, was expected to be slightly lower in 2013, at 35%.

Unfortunately the data available reveal nothing of the major of study of China’s PhD candidates along gender lines. Similarly, there is no data on the number of Chinese women earning PhDs from abroad. There is also no published data on PhD females by subject area or by region. What is known is that relatively few of these female graduates go on to become PhD supervisors themselves – just 2,212 of 13,720 in 2012, some 16%.

And so it seems the despite the social pressures attached to becoming one of China’s “third species”, the third species themselves are not on the endangered species list. At the same time, it also seems they are seldom seen at supervisory academic research levels thereafter – as it the case of female PhDs everywhere.

And so it seems the third species of China might in fact be quite similar to what would be a third species anywhere in the world in the end, just that they experience more direct social pressure and categorisations in China. Data by major, province and employment and marital status over time would reveal more, but at this stage its absence means the Third Species is somewhat an enigma of popular Chinese culture.

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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