Top universities break rules on gender discrimination

Around two-thirds of China’s top research universities still have policies that can be used to limit the proportion of women students, despite tighter government regulations issued this year against gender discrimination in universities and the workplace.

In some regions the proportion of female university students has been rising year on year, particularly in cities like Beijing and Chongqing. But some of the best universities have not abandoned restrictions on the proportion of women for some subjects.

Huang Yizhi, a Beijing-based lawyer, and Lu Pin, project leader at the Media Monitor for Women Network – a Chinese non-governmental organisation – sent a letter to the Ministry of Education requesting information on universities and degree programmes that have different admissions standards based on gender.

According to the NGO’s recently released survey of student recruitment at China’s top universities, recruitment plans of 34 out of 112 ‘Project 211’ universities – 66% of them – could be in violation of a directive released by China’s State Council in May this year stipulating that universities should not set gender ratios for students.

Exceptions to the May 2013 notice are only allowed for military and security-related institutions.

‘Project 211’ universities include more than 100 institutions that are being upgraded as research institutions.

Some ‘Project 211’ institutions such as Sichuan University and the Communication University of China have stated that male and female students would be recruited separately, according to the survey.

Some of the 40 top research universities designated as world-class universities by the Chinese government, known as ‘Project 985’ universities, were also found to have policies seen as discriminatory.

Although the government’s May directive states there should be no gender ratio for foreign language and broadcasting degrees, Lu Pin said gender ratios that discriminate against women still exist for some subjects where women applicants outnumber men, “because male graduates are more employable than their female counterparts”.

Higher scores for women

According to a report by the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, published in November last year, gender-based quotas and enrolment policies are widespread at China’s universities.

For some subjects, including languages and science, women applicants must score much higher than men in university entrance exams, also known as the gaokao.

Institutions such as Renmin University and Shanghai International Studies University set higher admission scores for female students, despite publicity and opposition from women’s organisations. Minimum admission scores for some science courses at the Shanghai-based university are as much as 60 points higher for women students.

At another institution in the city, Shanghai Language University, men with gaokao scores as low as 551 were accepted while the lowest accepted female score was 616.

Newspapers have revealed other cases. Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangzhou said there was clear discrimination in admissions. “In science courses at the China University of Political Science and Law, the bar is at 632 points for women but 588 for men,” the newspaper said.

The Ministry of Education defended the policy after a Beijing-based legal counselling centre for women lodged a complaint.

“In consideration of the national interests, the ministry has permitted some universities to adjust their ratio of female and male students in some majors, to fulfil the demand for special talents for special posts,” the ministry said in July 2012.

Graduate employment

Discrimination continues even after graduation, according to the All-China Women’s Federation, which has been monitoring the issue.

The problem has become acute as graduate unemployment rises and a record number of students graduating are chasing work in a tight jobs market.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that women graduates are having a more difficult time.

Zheng Churan a women’s rights activist and sociology graduate from the prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Southern Guangdong province, told local media that many female graduates received few responses to job applications while many less qualified male classmates easily found jobs.

Lack of enforcement of gender equality regulations was largely to blame for widespread discrimination, she said.

A notice issued on 16 May also stipulated that employers could not discriminate on the basis of gender in hiring graduates.

Employers discriminating against applicants' nationality, race, gender or religion could face fines of CNY10,000 to CNY30,000 (US$1,600 to US$4,800), according to an earlier draft of the notice posted on government websites in February this year.

"If the job advert includes discriminatory content, the Beijing human resources and social security bureau will order the employer to correct, and can fine them,” reads article 12 of the draft – the first time labour contract laws have included an article on gender discrimination, despite gender equality being enshrined in China’s constitution.

However Wang Shuwen, a lawyer from Beijing’s Mingxian law firm, was quoted by the official Global Times newspaper as saying: “The punishment is too light, and there's no reward incentive for those who report violators.”

Court complaint

University graduates have begun to fight against discrimination, including suing companies under the new laws.

Zheng recently sent a letter signed by more than 100 women students to the Committee for Internal Affairs and the Committee of Judicial Affairs at the Beijing Municipal People's Congress and the Haidian District People's Congress in Beijing, regarding the case of Cao Ju, a recent college graduate.

“I hope the letter can help re-open the case, punish the company, and truly protect the equal employment rights of women college students,” Zheng said, appealing to the Haidian District Court to file the ‘first case of sexual discrimination' under the new regulations.

Cao Ju was rejected by a training organisation last year on the grounds that only male applicants would be accepted. She sued the institution in the Haidian District People's Court in July 2012 under the existing 2008 employment promotion law. But the court did not accept the suit, saying there was no legal basis for it.