Q&A: Young women discuss gender and education in China today


Whether at school, university or in the workplace, young women in China are grappling with gender inequality. In 2018, the Global Gender Gap Report – benchmarking the progress towards gender parity of 149 countries – showed China placing 103rd.

Gender parity has long been a crucial issue in China. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, gender equality grew in China, as the government implemented policies that increased women’s participation in the state-owned workforce. However, market reforms under Deng Xiaoping took China towards a system based on capitalist market mechanisms that quickly increased inequality, resulting in a widening gender wage gap in the 1990s.

While China has made progress on the issue over the years, there is now a strong urban-rural divide. In 2009, about 50.48 per cent of students enrolled at university were female. It marked the first year that women outnumbered men. Moreover, according to the 2019 Hurun report for Richest Self-Made Women in the World, 57 per cent of the world’s 89 self-made women billionaires are from China. Between 1990 and 2017, the average number of years Chinese females spent in school also leapt from 4.8 to 7.6 years. .

Yet women living in China’s rural areas still face significant barriers in education and other spheres, due to the prevalence of traditional values and familial expectations for women. A meta-regression analysis found that whilst gender inequality in China’s education system has declined in urban areas in the last three decades, it still dominates in rural areas, especially among ethnic minorities. A report by the China Social Welfare Foundation in 2016 also shows that although 96.1 per cent of rural female students are enrolled in primary education, only 79.3 per cent move onto secondary education. Whilst this is still higher than the global average of 75.9 per cent, the lack of employment opportunities for women in rural areas remains a crucial challenge.

In China and worldwide, there are still entrenched expectations on how women should behave. These stereotypes prevent women from fully thriving, whether academically, professionally, sexually or personally. In Chinese there is a phrase: “此路艰难,带足干粮 (The road is tough, bring plenty of provisions). It is up to us to arm ourselves with self-confidence, respect for one another, and unwavering determination in order to fight for greater equality.

In a series of interviews with NüVoices, young women in China aged 11 to 18 share their thoughts on education and gender, as well as their hopes for the future.

A young girl daydreaming on a train platform in Beijing. Credit: Olivia A. Halsall

Gender inequality is something women grapple with in all industries and sectors of society. What are your views on gender barriers in employment, and what are the main challenges facing young female graduates today?

The main challenge faced by female university students is the need to overcome the psychological fear caused by the idea that it’s difficult for girls to find employment. Although men and women are physiologically different, women in fact can have a lot of advantages, such as strong a memory as well as a solid and stable learning abilities. As a result of societal influences, some girls may analyse their shortcomings and place them above their strengths. If they believe they are inferior, that itself determines their own inferiority to the boys. My view is this: in the face of employment difficulties, girls should know how to play to their own advantages, believe that they can possess the same strengths as boys, and maintain a positive attitude.

女大学生面对的挑战主要是克服在“女生就业难”的说法影响下产生的畏难心理。虽然生理结构不同, 但其实女生们也是有很多优点的,例如记忆力强, 踏实稳重以及学习能力强。有些女生因为社会言论的影响, 分析自己时总是觉得自己缺点大于优点, 她们会有自卑的心理, 会自己从心里认定自己不如男生。我的看法是: 在面临就业问题时, 女生要懂得发挥自己的优势, 要相信自己和男生生一样有实力, 有好的心理状态。

– Vivian, 18, Beijng

Who is a female role model you look up to, and why? 

I think Madame Curie is my role model. In the 19th century, female discrimination was more serious, but she did not fear contempt (from others) and continued to do what she wanted. Her achievements were unprecedented, and she was the only person in history (and only woman) to have won the Nobel Peace Prize twice. As a woman, she gave the safety of her life to study nuclear radiation and do things that men couldn’t even dream about. She’s a role model for me.


– Emma, 12, Shanghai

Can you share your experience with gender-based discrimination, and your views on this issue? 

I live in Xingping, which is in Guilin province. My parents have a small restaurant which is very popular with Chinese tourists in this area. My older brother and I go to the same school, which is not very far – maybe 30 minutes walking – but when my parents are not working they will take us on their electric bicycle. I think gender discrimination occurs both at school and at home. In classes like history, my teacher will prefer girls to answer her questions, but in maths she usually picks on boys because she says they are stronger and thus can cope with the difficult subject. At home, my parents spend their additional money on online tutoring for my brother, even though my grades are higher! They say it will be easier for him to find a job here because he is a boy.


– Yunzhi, 10, Guilin

Young girls from ethnic minorities dance at a bar in Yunnan province. Credit: Olivia A. Halsall

How do you view the experience of growing up in China today as an ethnic minority? Does it differ from previous generations? 

For me, the advantages of coming from an ethnic minority, and growing up in a tourist area are that we can sing and dance well to perform to tourists and earn a good living. We also have an enthusiasm for life, and a strong sense of who we are. A disadvantage is that maybe our Chinese Mandarin is not as fluent, because we have always spoken in our local dialect at home since a young age…this can prevent us from accessing top universities and doing well in school, in comparison to Han Chinese students. However, compared to previous generations, we learn more quickly and are able to accept new things with an open mind.


– Limeng, 15, Yunnan.

What is your favourite subject at school and why? Does your family show preference over certain subjects?  If so, why?

My favourite subject at school is mathematics. I’m very fascinated with solving all kinds of mathematical problems, and also enjoy the sense of accomplishment I feel when a difficult problem is solved. At the same time, learning mathematics can also enhance my logical and problem-solving abilities. My parents think every subject is important, but that working on maths can be especially convenient for learning other subjects.


– Clare, 14, Beijing

What changes do you hope to see in China in the coming years, in terms of gender quality and liberation?

My family is very modern. Both my parents work – my father is a businessman, and my mother as a university professor. Both my parents are strong workers who are capable of achieving a high salary, respect and status at work. But at home, sometimes my father will hit my mother during arguments. On the surface, as far as everyone else is concerned, they have equal status – but at home, this is not the case. I hope women like my mother can one day stand up to domestic violence and feel strong enough to have an independent life away from the complications that marriage can bring. I will go to study in the United States for university, so I hope that by the time I graduate, women in China can feel like they deserve equal respect across all aspects of life – whether at home, at work, or in school.


– Alice, 18, Guangzhou

About the author

Portrait of the author. Credit: Olivia A. Halsall

Olivia A. Halsall is an incoming MPhil Education candidate at the University of Cambridge. She recently graduated from the University of Birmingham with 1st class honors in BA Modern Languages (Chinese Mandarin and French) with Business Management, during which she attended Tsinghua University as a recipient of the CIS Confucius Language Scholarship. For the past year, she has been working in Shanghai as a tutor, freelance journalist and Sino-UK consultant for education startups. See her media project here: https://66hands.com/

About the editor

Daisy Singh-Greaves is a writer and copyeditor for NüStories who also helps coordinate the NüVoices London Chapter. She is a British journalist who has written for Panda Radio, among other China-focused media outlets. Passionate about Chinese literature, community-based storytelling and international development, she holds a dual honours undergraduate degree in Chinese and English from SOAS, University of London. Alongside studying for a year at Beijing Normal University, she volunteered at the Starfish Project—a charity supporting and rehabilitating trafficked women in East Asia. Daisy hopes to elevate the voices of women and other minorities by illuminating their stories through grass-roots journalism. Follow her on Twitter @daisygreaves