Are Chinese women holding up half of the sky in China? (Part 2)

Women in higher education and research

China has a strong, but still unbalanced, “SHE- brain power”. For instance, a clear pattern of “Science for Boys and Arts for Girls” can be observed from the data on freshmen registration at universities in Beijing between 2005 -2008. [1] The situation has not changed significantly since then. Consequently, this will further widen the gender gap through both future income distribution and career development.    

Unbalanced SHE-brain power in research

China has the largest number of Research and Development (R&D) personnel in the world. Its R&D personnel has increased from 3.2 million in 2009 to 6.2 million in 2017, and the increased demand for talent has highlighted the need for more female scientists. Currently, women make up only about one fourth of this workforce.

When it comes to research, it is also a well-known fact that female researchers have both lower participation rate and lower success rate when applying for research funding, particularly in STEM-related fields. As one example, of 200 recipients of the Distinguished Young Scholars Award in 2018, which is one of the most prestigious research grants of China’s most important research funding agency, the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC), only 23 were women. [2] Some additional regulatory barriers have made it even more difficult for female researchers. For instance, in many Chinese universities researchers can gain a permanent position only if they pass an evaluation after a 6-year probationary period, which often coincides with women’s child-bearing years.

As one measure to improve the gender balance, NSFC raised the age limit for female researchers to apply for the Young Scientist Fund from 35 to 40 in 2011, while that for male researchers remained at 35. The positive outcomes, in terms of participation rate and success rate are significant as illustrated in figure below. [3]

However, the structural barriers and difficulties for gender equality in research cannot be solved by funding agencies, such as NSFC, alone. Several policy initiatives and measures have also been taken at the national level to address the gender inequality in higher education and research, for instance:

  • In 2010, a policy document from the State Council called for concrete measures to help talented men and women to achieve a better work-life balance. It advocated a more equitable gender ratio in professional workplaces.
  • In 2011, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) and the National Women’s Federation jointly issued a policy document, aiming to strengthen the engagement of female scientists in major scientific research projects and their participation in S&T management and major decision-making processes.

Beyond career promotion and more grants –  gendered attitudes

In addition to better career development and more research grants, the cultural expectations on women today, or more precisely the “gendered attitudes”, is still a significant challenge for female researchers. The results from a survey of nearly 6000 Chinese researchers show differences in attitudes between men and women that could hold back women in their careers. [4]

Looking ahead – women in the transformation towards a new AI-era

China is determined to become a superpower of AI and China is devoting huge resources to achieve its AI-ambitions. It is paramount that the AI-offensive and related transformation processes in China (and in the world) will be a gender-balanced and gender-responsive development. This should be one of the keystones of the emerging global “Tech for Social Good” movement, i.e.  the digital economy and AI should help to narrow, rather than further widen the gender gaps. This requires that women are, side-by-side, with men to define and drive the research and innovation frontiers, together.

“When you are making a technology this pervasive and this important for humanity, you want it to carry the values of the entire humanity, and serve the needs of the entire humanity. If the developers of this technology do not represent all walks of life, it is very likely that this will be a biased technology. I say this as a technologist, a researcher, and a mother. And we need to be speaking about this clearly and loudly”.

Fei-Fei Li, Co-Director of the Human-Centered AI Institute, Stanford University, Former Chief Scientist of AI/ML and VP, Google Cloud

However, the results from a survey by ElementAI among 4000 researchers who have published at the leading international AI-conferences are an alarming illustration: the world, including China and the Nordic countries have a lot of work ahead for a gender-balanced and gender-responsive AI-development.

Source: Modified based on the presentation by ElementAI [5]

Many progresses have been made, from both a Chinese and an international perspective. However, there are many common and daunting challenges at present and ahead. Women, in China and globally, can, will and need to hold up half of the sky, in business, in higher education and science. For a more inclusive, more progressive and more productive transformation towards a high-quality growth and a sharing and caring global society.    

Nannan Lundin & Jessica Zhang  


[1] https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1002051/is-gender-equality-at-chinese-colleges-a-sham%3F

[2] http://www.nsfc.gov.cn/publish/portal0/tab434/info74174.htm

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04996-3. Survey by the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development (CASTED), 2016 and Close the gender gap in Chinese science, Nature 557, 25-27 (2018).

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-04996-3

[5] https://medium.com/element-ai-research-lab/estimating-the-gender-ratio-of-ai-researchers-around-the-world-81d2b8dbe9c3