China / China

Gender roles changing as girls outperform boys

By Zhou Wenting (China Daily) Updated: 2017-01-25 08:15

Traditional concepts are being overturned as the gap between the sexes narrows. Zhou Wenting reports from Shanghai.

Recently, Little Men, China's first textbook focusing on the mental health of primary school-age boys was introduced. The book sparked nationwide discussions as critics argued that certain qualities, such as perseverance and independence, should not be regarded as solely male attributes.

The book, distributed last month to male students in the fourth and fifth grades at Zhabei No 3 Central Primary School in the Jing'an district of Shanghai, stresses that boys are usually expected to display masculine traits by appearing courageous and resolute.

The authors claim that the book is based on principles of gender equality, but many observers, parents included, are unhappy because they don't believe that gender should be stereotyped through education.

"Within the context of traditional Chinese culture, the concept of masculinity and femininity is that males provide the bread while females take care of the family. These gender characteristics are forcibly imposed on children. It shouldn't be like this," said Fan Di, the mother of a 9-year-old girl in Shanghai.

"I think good traits, such as responsibility, confidence, gentleness and compassion, should be associated with both genders."

Experts believe that opinions such as Fan's show that the gender gap is gradually narrowing because women in China are more highly educated than ever before and they are becoming more influential, both in the jobs market and at home.

Changing concepts

Traditional Chinese concepts of gender are changing.

In recent years, sex education has come under the spotlight, with some experts stating that schools should reinforce traditional gender roles and values because they fear that a growing number of boys are becoming timid while girls are becoming increasingly fearless.

Last year saw the foundation of the first boys-only class at the Junior High School affiliated to Nanjing Normal University in Jiangsu province, which is intended to promote masculinity among students. At the same time, a girls-only class was initiated at Suzhou Foreign Language School, also in Jiangsu, to cultivate elegance and gentility in 10-year-old girls through intensive courses in etiquette and the arts.

However, many commentators online believe that the promotion of stereotypical images of men and women is a form of gender discrimination.

"In the old days, when sons were preferred to daughters and men steered the families and the nation, people stressed masculinity - which usually equates to dominance - and femininity, which we can interpret as obedience. Such ideas belong in the past - now everybody, male or female, can be somebody in the family and in society," wrote a micro-blogger, under the pen name of "Xiaoyang".

Yu Yaya, whose son and daughter attend primary schools in Shanghai, said her children are treated equally at home.

"I won't tell my son that boys cannot shed tears if they are frightened or in pain, or tell my daughter that women who smoke are unpleasant. Those things were frequently said by members of previous generations," she said.

"They'll both take charge of their lives one day. I believe that social expectations for boys and girls in terms of personal development and contribution to society have become very similar."

Some experts believe that ideas such as those expressed by Fan and Yu indicate that the social status of Chinese women is rising, indicating progress both socially and financially.

"When women have equal access to education and earn competitive wages, they will win more respect from their families and society, and more women will refuse to be seen just as the wife behind a successful husband. That mindset will then be passed down to the next generation and influence their understanding of the familial and social roles of the two genders," said Zhou Haiwang, vice-director of the institute of population and development at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

A 2013 survey conducted in 31 cities nationwide by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group showed that in some places - such as Shanghai, Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, and Chaozhou in Guangdong province - women were often the main decision-makers in their families, which is very different from the traditional picture in China, where the husband holds the dominant position in the family.

In addition, a survey published by the Shanghai Marriage and Family Research Commission in 2015 showed that wives have a bigger say, and therefore greater influence, in many Shanghai families.

Moreover, the latest statistics from the Ministry of Education show that women accounted for more than half of all undergraduates in China in 2015, and female students had outnumbered their male counterparts for seven consecutive years. Added to that, the proportion of female PhD students rose to 37 percent in 2015.

Boys in crisis?

The academic rise of women is not only evident in higher education, but also at lower levels.

A number of primary schoolteachers canvassed for this article said girls generally outperform boys academically because they concentrate more in class and their performances are more stable.

Girls also occupy more places at elite high schools. At Shanghai High School, one of the city's highest-rated senior schools, girls account for 65 percent of the students. "It has been like this for 10 years," said Tang Shengchang, the school principal, in a 2014 interview with China Youth Daily.

Statistics published in 2015 by the educational examination authorities in the provinces of Shandong, Guangdong and Jiangsu showed that more girls than boys have been enrolled at elite senior high schools via entrance exams.

The growth of statistics such as these has prompted educational experts to call repeatedly for measures to bring boys up to standard.

However, Yang Xiong, director of the Juveniles Research Institute at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, disagreed with the assessments.

"The rising performance of girls doesn't mean a decline for boys. It just shows that the gap between the genders is narrowing as the country continues to develop," he said, adding that the current student assessment system favors girls, which may affect boys' self-confidence.

"Boys take more time to mature both physically and mentally, which may make it hard for them to compete with girls during school, especially in the early years. Typical Chinese tests, which concentrate on memory skills and accuracy, are the very things at which girls excel," Yang said.

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 Gender roles changing as girls outperform boys

Children at a kindergarten in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, practice kung fu with a teacher. Schools in China are looking to recruit more male teachers.Ji Chunpeng / Xinhua

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