Gender Issues with Chinese Characteristics: Musings on the "Women in Science" session at the OCPA7

Betty Tsang

The Seventh Joint Meeting of Chinese Physicists Worldwide (OCPA7) was held at the National Sun Yat Sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Aug 1-5, 2011. This series of conferences has been organized about every three years, chiefly by the Overseas Chinese Physics Association (OCPA). The OCPA was founded in 1991 by a group of ethnic Chinese physicists mainly from the US, mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Due to the politically sensitive situation in mainland China and Taiwan, the OCPA has consistently advocated the promotion of physics among ethnic Chinese physicists as the main and sole purpose of the association. Thus it was interesting to note that a lunch panel discussion on "Women in Science" was scheduled on the second day of the meeting. Could this be related to the fact that the current OCPA chair is Haiyan Gao at Duke University, the first woman President in OCPA's twenty year history?

The session was chaired by Mei Bai from Brookhaven National Laboratory. Halfway through the meeting, I counted 36 people attending the session; 17 were male colleagues. The nearly 50% male ratio was certainly the highest I have seen in this type of meeting, so much so that some late-arriving women participants peeked in and moved on thinking that it was the wrong session. In the beginning, I thought the men came only to eat their box lunch in the air-conditioned room. However, they were as active in voicing their opinions as their women counterparts during the discussions.

The opening remarks and initial comments by Mei Bai and Haiyan Gao reflected the US situation from well known studies on the gender gap in the physical sciences [1]. In the following, I mainly focus on remarks from the audience on gender issues "with Chinese characteristics".

The audience, especially those from mainland China, became indignant when they heard that some US middle school teachers would make comments such as "there is no future in science for girls". It is unthinkable to them that such teachers could exist. This really reflects the differences in the teachers' expectation of their students in the two countries. It could also be that by middle school, the students in China already have chosen their field of study, Nearly all the Chinese scientists (male and female) reported that they had supportive parents who encouraged them to pursue advanced studies in science and that "good science teachers" had been one catalyst in their choice to become scientists.

As in all gender issue discussions, how to achieve a balanced life for a woman elucidated a lot of comments. Many male participants have "precious" daughters under China's one child policy. They lamented that a successful woman scientist who does not have a balanced life would scare off young girls from pursuing science. This provoked suggestions to produce pamphlets highlighting successful women scientists as role models. One Taiwan scientist reported that a 10 minute movie made for this purpose has been successful in recruiting young girls to study science. In this day and age of multi-media, short videos posted in social media may be the way to go.

The fathers were also very active in giving out advice that girls should plan their timing in attracting supporting spouses in marriage. (To the conventional Chinese thinking, being single is not balanced! That thought also applies to men.) One father volunteered that he and his wife gave their daughter advice about her career and marriage early and that his daughter adjusted her choice of graduate school to follow the "boy". These concerns led to a frank suggestion that women should plan their personal life including marriage and childbirth, the way they plan their career. Do not leave it to chance!

There were also fatherly suggestions that physicists should learn from Mathematicians, Astronomers and Chemists where there seem to be more successful women scientists. (US statistics does not support this [2].) Nonetheless, most were of the opinion that it is more difficult for women experimentalists to have balanced family lives because of the need to go to the laboratory at all hours and days of the week.

Most women scientists from the US complained about their childcare situation.  In China childcare in or near the work place was automatically provided under the communist government in China. Even in the absence of the childcare arrangements by "big brother", some women scientists in China can rely on their extended families. At OCPA7, not only did the conference provide financial support for child care, a list of local babysitters was also made available to participants with children!

When it comes to gender inequalities, most of our Chinese colleagues from the mainland do not believe that a gap or discrimination exists. It does not seem to matter that among the participants and speakers in OCPA7, the fairer sex represents much less than 20%. One senior male scientist from an institute in Beijing commented that he noticed more and more women faces in his institute in recent years. On the other hand, a woman scientist complained that the Chinese science sky is being held up by less and less women than a previous era under Mao when "women hold up half of the sky" was the politically correct slogan.

There was no time to discuss the glass ceiling. It might not be fruitful to do so if the mainland Chinese physicists were not convinced that there is gender inequity. In any case, it was time for most of us to break out of the air-conditioned bubble to face the hot humid air. Before closing the session which lasted nearly one and a half hours, the organizers agreed to compile some statistics about women representation in China for OCPA8 [3]. From the session, we can take to heart that the sincerity of the male physicists in China especially regarding the welfare of their daughters' careers may be one of the keys to remedy inequity problems.


[1] An example is Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering,
[2] Gender Equity, APS report, May 6-8, 2007, available online in
[3] After the meeting, the author found some statistics about women scientists in China in a talk posted online,

Betty Tsang is a Professor at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, Michigan State University and specializes in the study of the properties of Hot Nuclear Matter & Nuclei far from stability.

Disclaimer—The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.