Will End of One-Child Policy Halt the Advance of Women in China?

Times Higher Education, January 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Will End of One-Child Policy Halt the Advance of Women in China?


David Matthews reports on fears that shift could mean setbacks in higher education

China's one-child policy, perhaps the biggest attempt at social engineering in history, came to an end last year. Under pressure from an ageing population, the authorities announced in October that couples would be allowed to have two children, scrapping a policy that had been in place since 1979.

It was widely credited with having prevented 400 million births, although this claim has been challenged by scholars who traced it back to a Chinese government study from the late 1990s. A number of demographers have argued that birth rates would have come down with rising prosperity - as they have in other countries - regardless of state intervention.

Whatever the overall impact was, it did usher in an age of families without boys in a society where many parents traditionally kept trying for more children until they got a boy.

These girls did not have to compete with brothers for resources and attention, and so were able to blaze a trail through China's universities, according to a paper from Ye Liu, senior lecturer in international education at Bath Spa University.

"They joked that if they had a brother, they wouldn't be treated equally," Liu says of the women she interviewed for the study. "A lot of girls, particularly from urban areas, told me their life stories. They were constantly reminded of being lucky" for having been only children, she says.

The statistics back this up, according to "Women rising as half of the sky? An empirical study on women from the 'one-child' generation and their higher education participation in contemporary China".

Surveying nearly 1,000 undergraduates at universities in the eastern provinces of Anhui and Zhejiang, Liu found that singleton female students did substantially better than those with siblings.

They performed far better on the gao kao, China's university entrance exam, and were much better represented at "elite" universities. Singleton girls were also more likely to choose an arts, humanities or social science subject.

The one-child policy also coincided with a jump in the proportion of women on Chinese campuses. For the cohort born just before it was introduced, women accounted for just over 35 per cent of students. Immediately afterwards, women made up 41 per cent, and that has been rising ever since (in terms of tertiary enrolment, women overtook men in 2008, according to World Bank data).

Will they turn back time?

But now that the one-child policy is over, could Chinese patrilineal culture reassert itself, and sisters lose out to brothers in the fight for higher education? …

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