When Vincey Li applied to the prestigious China Police Academy graduate school, she knew her chances of success were slim. After all, the school sets quotas, usually limiting the number of female students to no more than a quarter of the total student population.
But her chances were even less. When the school released admissions results earlier this year, only five of the 140 students who participated in the program – less than 4 percent – were women, although more than 1,000 women applied. According to the school data, the woman with the lowest school entrance score scored 40 points better than the male applicant with the lowest score.
For Ms. Li, the message was clear: women are not welcome.
“The students were completely shocked,” said Ms. Li, who has been studying for the exam for over a year. “I don’t understand why they don’t even offer us these academic opportunities.”
Across China, women’s educational attainment has skyrocketed; There are now far more female students than men. But women continue to face significant barriers to training and academic programs – with direct quotas on their numbers in some areas – as they strive to overcome the country’s traditional male-dominated professions.
And it undermines China’s long-standing efforts to promote women in a country where, as the famous Mao said, women hold “half of the sky.”
Civil aviation-related training programs often state that they are looking for male candidates only, with the exception of flight attendant training. Military and political academies publicly impose gender quotas, leading to much stricter admission criteria for female students.
Women who applied to the People’s Liberation Army’s Missile Force Engineering University in June scored 127 points higher than their male counterparts with the lowest scores on the gaokao, the national exam that is the most important criterion for admission to Chinese universities, according to data provincial education department.
Police Academy program officer Ms. Li submitted a statement by phone that the additional female students were admitted through a separate process based on referrals rather than testing.
But even so, women make up only 17 percent of the Police Academy program as of last month, up from 38 percent in September 2020. The decline came after the university announced last September that it would limit the proportion of women it would accept to 15 percent, later citing the high risks and pressures associated with police work.
The different standards are not limited to police or military academies. Even some art schools have introduced 50/50 sex ratios to cut the growing proportion of female students.
An unofficial survey of 116 leading universities in China, published by a group of feminist activists in February, found that 86 academic majors across 18 universities had gender-based entry requirements.
The practice of approving male candidates has long been criticized. Ten years ago, following reports of a preference for men in universities, public outrage and protests forced the government to ban gender-based admissions for most majors.
Private universities in the United States have also recognized the persistence of gender balance, especially with the increase in more qualified female applicants.
But in China, the problem has become particularly acute in recent years, as the growing acceptance of feminism has come into conflict with the Chinese Communist Party’s expanding campaign for social control. Activists citing gender bias are censored online, and officials praise the virtues of traditional gender roles.
After a feminist group posted its report on the Internet about its biased admission policy, officially sanctioned social media campaigns against “extreme feminism” led to its rapid removal from the Internet.
“Some progress has been made before, but it wasn’t enough,” said Xiong Jing, who participated in the 2012 protests and was editor of Feminist Voices, a media outlet that was closed in 2018. Retreating now, she added, “Almost impossible.”
Although the Ministry of Education outlawed most gender-based admissions in 2012, it allowed them to study “special fields of study,” including those related to the military or national defense.
Restrictions are also allowed in areas deemed dangerous by the government, such as mining, shipping, or those that “need some gender balance”. Broadcasting schools, for example, argue that the sharing of female and male presenters is the norm in the industry.
But critics say schools are overly applying these criteria.
Take, for example, the China University of Telecommunications, often referred to as the “cradle of Chinese broadcasters.” To achieve gender parity in its television program, the university admitted women, who scored 20 points more than men on average, according to admissions figures.
Earlier this year, the university was also accused of setting a lower bar for men entering animation design programs after women accounted for 70 to 90 percent of their major.
In March, when the school released the results of the screening, students were surprised to find that the proportion of male candidates who were pre-admitted jumped to 50 percent.
Activists ask why gender quotas should exist in any area, even those related to the military.
Politicians believe that “women should look after them and expect men to take leadership roles,” said Professor Shen Xiu-hua, a gender expert at National Qing Hua University in Taiwan.
Indeed, some of the men’s quota protections rely heavily on traditional ideas about gender relations.
In Guangxi province, one university this year began offering free tuition in male-only kindergartens. The announcement follows state media coverage of an alleged “crisis of masculinity” among young Chinese men, which they blamed in part on female teachers.
After outraged by the animation program at the Communication University, professor Lin Bai said that male favors are beneficial for women as well. Or at least their social life.
“Small adjustments to the gender ratio so that young women on campus date boys is acceptable,” he wrote on social media Weibo.
But Professor Shen noted that there is no equivalent policy that favors women in male-dominated occupations.
China needs “more men in every industry,” she said.
“For an increasingly authoritarian government,” she added, “China needs to create an image of a courageous and strong person.”
Others gave more pragmatic reasons for introducing gender balance.
Zhang Dongsheng, head of a tutoring agency known for helping students enroll in police academies, said the lack of jobs for female police officers justifies their low enrollment rates.
“I also feel bad about my female students,” said Mr. Zhang. “But politicians don’t want them to be out of work.”
The result is a vicious circle, as restrictions on the admission of women fuel restrictions on the employment of women and vice versa, Professor Shen said.
Some women seeking employment in traditionally male-dominated industries seek opportunities abroad instead.
In 2018, flight attendant Lian Luo decided to pursue her dream of becoming a pilot.
She attended a local airline trainee pilot recruitment session, but staff asked her and other female candidates to leave.
She eventually went on to study in South Africa and graduate in her class.
“There is no such opportunity in China for women like me,” she said. “Nowhere to start.”