Chinese people say there are three sexes: male, female and female PhD.
The popular joke, which stereotypes women with doctorates as asexual nerds, highlights the strong stigma in China around women who devote themselves to academia.
Chinese women have reached parity with men at every other level in education – elementary, high school, college and master’s programs.
But the gap remains wide when it comes to doctoral degrees. In 2016, only 39% of all PhD candidates in China were women, compared with 52% of doctoral degree recipients in the US the same year.
Experts say a persistent misogyny in Chinese academia, sexual harassment and the pressure to get married have kept many talented women from reaching their potential.
The third gender
Experts say the “third gender” joke reflects the social stigma for those who defy the traditional belief that women should devote themselves to family care and children.
“While education and accomplishment is, of course, venerated, I think many women still battle against the stigma of becoming shengnu,” says Angharad Fletcher, a PhD candidate who researches gendered labor at King’s College London.
Shengnu, or “leftover women,” is a derogatory term that refers to women who remain single in their late 20s.
“The time you would hope to be devoting to your academic career, is also the time many families would expect you to be seeking a life partner,” Fletcher says.
Traditional views on gender roles in China have led many to believe that the husband should have the highest academic achievement in a family, making female PhD holders undesirable in the marriage market.
Compared to men, women have found it harder to delay marriage for education because of the pressure to marry young and marry up.
“Female PhDs are like, ‘ah, I will be at least 30 when I have my first child,’” says Iris Yan, a 26-year-old studying comparative literature at Peking University and one of China’s 130,000 female PhD students.
#MeToo on campus
Sexual harassment on campus is also driving women away from academia, say sociologists.
However, many victims have stayed silent, worrying that reporting their professors will hurt their grades or career prospects.
A 25-year-old PhD student in developmental biology told Inkstone that she has decided to quit academia after graduation, because she was traumatized after being sexually harassed by her adviser.
“Other girls in the lab headed by the adviser are experiencing sexual harassment as well,” says the woman, who was only willing to give her surname, Zhang.
“But they won’t talk because the adviser decides whether and when we can graduate and get the PhD.”
China’s emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) over humanities and social sciences has also contributed to the gender gap, according to Xu Duoduo, a sociology professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
She says most of the state-funded PhD programs are in STEM fields, where women make up smaller percentages.
Sylvia Beyer, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, says girls are discouraged from studying math and sciences from a young age, even though studies have showed they perform as well as boys in these subjects.
Despite the challenges, more Chinese women have chosen to pursue higher degrees. The number of female PhD candidates has nearly doubled over the past decade, rising faster than the male number.
One of them, 25-year-old Jiang, is halfway through a six-year PhD program in cell biology at the prestigious Peking University.
Jiang, who declines to give her full name, says she feels the pressure to get married – but she insists that science comes first.