A few months ago, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers sparked an uproar when he suggested that women are not as good at science and maths as men. Now, China's prestigious Peking University has an admission policy that suggests women are too good at learning languages, and therefore should not be treated equally.
The controversy broke out when some female applicants failed to be admitted to the university's Foreign Languages School while men with slightly lower scores were enrolled. An official at the school explained that as much as 80 per cent of its student body is female, and for this year's enrolment the ratio is 70 per cent for women.
"In this context, we are giving some preferential treatment to male students, but it is limited to classes of less-popular languages and special situations," said the official, on condition of anonymity.
"If you come to our school, you feel like you have stumbled upon a beauty pageant. Having so many girls around certainly makes for a lovely scene, but it does not lead to a gender balance in the student body," he added.
"This is an outrageous display of gender discrimination ," said Wang Yingjie, an education expert. "If this had happened in any other country, there would have been lawsuits."
However, gender disparity has long existed in China's college admissions. Women are considered to have an edge in language learning, and in some language universities male students have never exceeded one third of the total enrolment. Some school authorities find various excuses to lower the cut-off score for men, or in other words, raise it for women.
Historically, Chinese women have had fewer opportunities for college education than men. Recently there has been a noticeable trend for increased equality: between 1998 and 2002, the ratio for women in the student body rose steadily, from 38.31 per cent to 43.95 per cent. However, this shows that women, for all the progress, are still at a disadvantage in receiving higher education.
Lin Huiqing, an official at the Ministry of Education, explained that "gender equality and the protection of students' interests" are the basic principles for college admissions, but each school makes its own policies with no need for ministry approval .
"Everyone has an equal right to receive education," said Hong Chengwen, an administrator at Beijing Normal University, "but the lack of balance in gender distribution should be addressed." Hong said a school should set a gender ratio appropriate for its recruitment.
"University is a reflection of society at large, and the more that school policies are structured according to society, the easier it will be for students once they graduate," he told China Daily.
Men and women have different perspectives, and they compliment each other in class discussion and other teamwork, he added. But to ensure equality in school, the government should introduce laws such as affirmative action to guarantee the rights of both genders in every walk of life.
Gender equality has been a hot topic recently. A conference to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women was started yesterday. Additionally, the country's top legislature revised a law that will now outlaw any form of discrimination against women.