Researcher maternity rights proposed, to raise birth rate

Proposals were put forward this month at the joint sessions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to improve maternity conditions for China’s PhD students and researchers, as part of the country’s efforts to boost the declining birth rate.

Zhou Yanfang, an NPC delegate from Shanghai, said China needed policies to encourage masters and doctoral students who are still at university to marry and have children, and to protect their right to do so. Her proposals attracted “widespread discussion” within the joint sessions that ended on 12 March, according to official media, and also by the public on social media.

Zhou suggested in her proposal to the NPC, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, at its annual joint session with the government advisory body the CPPCC National Committee, that female graduate students and PhD students should be entitled to statutory maternity leave and should have their graduation period extended appropriately according to the length of maternity leave.

Zhou also said women students and researchers should be able to receive subsidies during maternity leave and enjoy more flexibility in the student and research environment at universities. Universities should also set up maternal and child health services to provide counselling services to mothers on campus.

This year’s joint session saw several proposals to promote childbearing in the country as the government has become concerned about its ageing population and the reluctance of young people, particularly the most educated, to marry and have children, pushing it to the top of the government’s agenda.

Last year the number of newborns in China was only 10.62 million, a record low compared with 12 million the year before, according to figures reported in January by the National Bureau of Statistics of China.

The Chinese Communist Party has taken some steps to address the declining birth rate by relaxing its notorious one-child policy, which has been in place since the 1980s.

In 2016 it announced it would allow two-children families and since last year raised this to three.

The government is also offering incentives to young families and promising improvements in workplace rules and early education. It has even banned private tutoring in an effort to tackle soaring education costs, which couples often say is a reason for not wanting to have children.

Beijing has promised to revamp laws prohibiting discrimination against working mothers. Zhou said she had witnessed job and research recruitment bias against women and said she hoped to protect women’s rights in the workplace and at home through her NPC motion.

She pointed out that many young Chinese were delaying having children to pursue higher education, as a postgraduate or doctoral degree paves the way for better and high-paying positions in a competitive job market.

However, during the NPC debate some delegates raised fears that special treatment for women would spark gender discrimination within academic institutions, saying it would make universities less rather than more likely to hire women researchers, an indication that there is still some way to go to change entrenched attitudes.

Pressures on women researchers

In a recent survey of 453 women academics working in universities across China, Yang Shen, an associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, and Binqin Li of the University of New South Wales in Australia, found the pressure to publish, particularly by young researchers who are not on permanent academic contracts, negatively influenced childbearing choices.

They found that 50% of the respondents considered that fixed-term academic contracts increased the pressure to write and publish and 82% experienced psychological pressure and worried about contract renewal.

The authors noted that women academics and PhDs adapted their reproductive behaviour in response to the greater work pressure – 70% of them on a fixed-term contract had deliberately moved forward or delayed childbearing. These reported childbearing choices were a much higher rate than the 37% who had not signed fixed-term contracts.

The authors of the 2020 paper also noted that more and more PhD students give birth before they graduate. Universities and supervisors, however, are slow to meet their childcare needs.

Several survey respondents who were new mothers said that they “dared not take leave” even while suffering from postnatal depression, while others resigned because “they could not cope with the pressure”. Others noted that getting information from universities on maternity leave was often difficult.

The authors noted that the fixed-term contract system for academic researchers is new in most universities in China.

“Universities may have been overly excited about the magic power of ‘publish or perish’ contracts to stimulate research outputs and failed to notice that in other countries that have adopted the system, there are supportive arrangements for women,” they said.

Joy Zhang, reader in sociology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, who is an expert on China’s science policies, said in some major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, statutory maternity policies were already applied to women academics and researchers though not in lower tier cities.

“But to what extent do female researchers want to take full advantage of the maternity leave, I’m not really sure because workplace discrimination is so prevalent in China. If ambitious women want to get ahead, there is a risk calculation there. They’re also quite stressed; there’s so much career pressure,” Zhang told University World News.

“Especially in academia, for female researchers, discrimination starts from the point of hiring, at their job interview,” Zhang said, pointing to the common questions directed at female applicants on whether they are married or have children.

“There won’t be significant change in the condition of women academics unless Chinese institutions change their mindset about childbearing and childcaring,” Zhang said.

She added: “This problem cannot be solved by just giving benefits to female researchers; you have to have matching paternal leave for male researchers, so that it is more balanced. Male colleagues will feel they have to take time off to take care of their children and then in terms of publication or research, the work balance will be more even.”

Proposals from other agencies

While universities are still lagging in their policies, some government agencies and other institutions are beginning to bring in more favourable conditions.

In a policy document released in June last year, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology pointed to a shortage of female scientific and technological leaders and unveiled a number of measures including for more women to be nominated to the highest rank for the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE).

Data from the ministry and the National Bureau of Statistics showed that although half of all college degree holders in 2019 were women, female representation in CAS and CAE was just 6% and 5.3% respectively.

Despite the ministry’s changes, which included giving women scientists priority in recruitment and research, just 11 women out of 194 scientists were admitted to the prestigious academies.

In its June policy document, the ministry acknowledged there had been insufficient policies to encourage women to stay in science. “Female scientific and technological talents still face some bottlenecks in their career development,” it said.

The ministry has said research projects will be extended for female researchers who have been on maternity leave. It also encourages scientific research units to set up a ‘female scientific research return fund’ to subsidise female scientific researchers to return to research positions after giving birth. But these are not yet widespread in universities.

Some research funding bodies such as the National Natural Science Foundation of China have since 2011 allowed women to extend their time to complete research by up to 24 months due to childbirth or pregnancy.