Women Dominate Higher Education -- But Not in China

In the United States women are becoming the dominant participants in higher education and increasingly the dominant wage earners in two-parent families; they increasingly have no use for marriage at all. Arguing about the increasing irrelevance of men in the US, Hanna Rosin's new book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women has naturally been attacked here and here and praised here and here.

Despite such triumphs about women's success, there are obvious counterexamples in the number of women in the highest positions, such as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (18 out of 500 in 2012, up from just 12 the previous year), or in the US Senate (17 out of 100), or in the percentage of full professors (18%).

But among students in higher education the dominance of women is undeniable, with women constituting 55-60% of students on most campuses. This has become the case worldwide, with the exception of in Africa. Many have observed the "affirmative action" that operates in trying to balance the gender ratio at least somewhat and the efforts to entice even less-qualified men to campus sometimes by establishing male-friendly sports such as football.

But things are completely different in China.

China has an enormous imbalance in the sex-ratio of its population, because of a long-standing preference for boys that is exacerbated by the birth-limitation policies. Instead of the expected ratio of 105 boys born for every 100 girls (the sex ration at birth, SRB), the average Chinese ratio in the 2010 census was 118; the CIA World Factbook puts it at 1.13, and the UNFPA puts it above 120.

The problem for any society is "balance." China has a huge number of men who fail to find sex or marriage partners, giving rise to all sorts of social ills: kidnapping of rural women into the sex trade, immigration of women from poor Asian countries to be, essentially, mail-order brides, isolated and sometimes abused.

For women, many also fail to marry because they are "left behind."

These shengnü, surplus women, are often the best educated. In a society where traditionally essentially all women marry, because they are a minority, up to 6 percent of women 30-34 were unmarried in 2008.

But universities are also complicit in an effort to keep women from thriving. Quotas for women in certain universities and certain majors--designed for "balance"--result in perpetuating a situation where women can never be men's equals.

This week, though, several young women took matters into their own hands and protested unequal college admissions standards, which are significantly higher than for men. On the gaokao, the college entrance examination that determines both which university or college will be attended as well as which major a student can enroll in, at the University of International Relations, women have to score 628, but men need only 609 to enter. For science courses at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, women need a score of 632 while men need only 588.

The argument has nothing to do with campus culture, which in China is largely irrelevant, but more with cultural ideas about appropriateness of professions for women and men.

Protests are common, though illegal in China. One must applaud the courage of these young women and their supporters in calling attention to what has largely been acquiescence to old models of the proper place of women.

Even if women are represented in equal numbers, if they are relegated to fields that are not as respected or to universities that have lower prestige, all the while having to demonstrate higher levels of accomplishment, this is not balance. It is not equality. It is, pure and simple, discrimination.