It is an universal phenomenon of academic women’s lower representation in higher education. The topic of my study is “ Life Cycle and Career Patterns of Academic Women in Higher Education in China Today”. The aim of this study is to explore the situation and challenges academic women face in higher education in China today from a life course perspective.
My research design is also to focus on gender issues in higher education. Gender is one of the central organizing principles around which social life revolves, it is a social, cultural and historical phenomenon. As a socially constructed system it is organized differently in different societies, cultures and at different times in history (Lie, lecture 2007). “ Academic women are of particular interest because they have the potential to play a critical role in shaping women and men of the future and, in addition to influencing the form and content of knowledge, they also serve as models for female students” (Malik& Lie in Lie& Malik, 1994:4).
One of the profound changes that has taken place since the establishment of P.R. China in 1949 is the announced emphasis of men and women’s equality, both in public and domestic sphere. However, China is no exception in terms of gender stratification in higher education and there’s much to be improved. Moreover, little is known about the institutional, cultural and personal barriers academic women face in their career progress in higher education today. In this study, I investigated Chinese academic women’s early educational background, occupational profile and family from a life course perspective in order to shed light on the above mentioned issues.
My study adopts both qualitative and quantitative approach with an emphasis on the qualitative research design. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in one comprehensive university in Shanghai. There are altogether fourteen interviews with faculty members, ten females and four males. Each interview lasts from 45 minutes to one hour. By exploring the institutional, cultural, and personal backgrounds as well as examining several relevant aspects in the specific social context of China, the life course of academic women in China are explored.
The findings in the study indicates that within the social system, the academic structure in universities in China is highly hierarchical and women’s participation in higher education institutions is disadvantaged compared with men’s. Therefore, the institutional aspect poses challenges towards academic women, such as the structure of the academy, gender composition, division of labor, career advancement, promotion, network, leadership, and cumulative advantage.
Within the cultural system, my findings indicate that academic women in China experience gender stereotypes. In modern China, the old legacy such as Confucianism ‘s view towards women (subordinate to men) still partially exists. Men’s traditional conceptions of women’s virtue - an ideal wife are still popular in modern China, thus academic women, despite their public roles at universities, have to perform their best to meet these gender specific expectations as care-providers.
Within the personality system, academic women are still expected to perform their role in family, thus to balance family and career is a “ Juggling act” (Lie in Lie & O’Leary, 1990). From my fieldwork interviews, I find that academic women take the majority of housework, take care of child’s everyday life, while men only do temporary house maintenance, and tend to join in children’s weekend activities. This finding coincides with western scholar’s finding concerning domestic housework share (Bjeren & Elgqvist-Saltzman, 1994; Jacka, 1997; Zhang, 2000). In my study some of the female respondents get help from their own parents and the extended family. The extended family help to young couples is derived from traditional Chinese value – familism. Compared with academic women in western countries, Chinese women enjoy this advantage. For in a research concerning women academics in fourteen countries, only in Turkey academic women get help from the extended family, which is similar to the Chinese pattern (Acar in Lie & Malik, 1994). The study concludes that there is a possible trend of expended gender gap in higher education in China. Although China has a large population, the number of female doctorate students is still low. The future is not that positive because of this limited pool, where academic women are already disadvantaged in higher education reforms because of the trends in Globalization. Furthermore, as the “one-child” policy in China continues, a potential crisis on gender balance hints. The sex ratio in China is continuously high, which means there are more male than female in China. Decreasing female population will lead to low percentage of female students in all levels of education. Therefore, unless special policies are introduced, there’s a danger of enlarging the gender gap in higher education in China.