How do women academics fulfil KPIs in an age of Two-Child Policy in China?

Research Highlighted

Li, B., & Shen, Y. (2020). Publication or pregnancy? Employment contracts and childbearing of women academics in China. Studies in higher education, 1-13. doi:10.1080/03075079.2020.1817888

The ‘publish or perish’ system has been widespread in the global higher education sector to incentivize academic performance. How the system affects academics in non-western countries has received scant attention. In recent years, more and more Chinese universities start to introduce a tenure track system in which the employees sign a fixed term contract with interim and end of term reviews. After the review, the employees would either be promoted to tenure positions or lose their jobs. The term of contracts would usually be 4-6 years. The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) include numbers of publications and successful grant applications.

In our recent article “Publication or pregnancy? Employment contracts and childbearing of women academics in China”, we used a mix-method approach to understand the relationships between contract types, work pressure, childbearing intentions and individual coping strategies. The quantitative analyses show the relationships between these factors, and the qualitative results provide in-depth understanding on how women academics acted in response to the changing evaluation and contracting practices.

Our research compared the differential impact of fix-term and permanent contracts on women academics. We examined their perceived work pressure and the childbearing decisions of women academics in China. The survey data were collected in 2019 through an online survey of 453 women academics working in universities across China. The research establishes a significant correlation between the types of contracts and the reproductive practices of women academics of childbearing age. In order to obtain more detailed information on the underlying consequences of the new system and the respondents’ coping strategies, interviews were conducted with women academics across different stages of their career.

We found that 70% of the respondents considered that fixed term contracts increased the pressure to write and publish. 82% experienced psychological pressure and worried about contract renewal. People working under fixed term contract felt more stressed than those who did not sign the contract. What is more, it had increased the anticipated pressure for those who were about to sign a fixed term contract. Women academics and PhDs have adapted their reproductive behaviour in response to the greater work pressure. The data shows that there is a significant difference in the timing of childbearing between women who had signed a fixed term contract and those who had not. Nearly 70% of the respondents who had ever signed fixed-term contacts had deliberately moved forward or delayed their childbearing, a much higher rate than those who had not signed fixed-term contracts (37%). However, their adaptation cannot solve all the problems they have to face and could cause vulnerability and inequality. More and more PhD students give birth before they graduate. Universities and supervisors, however, are slow to meet their childcare needs. Employers are reported to prefer women PhDs who have already had children upon recruitment.

The findings also show that the new system adopted in China offers higher risk contracts with higher pay than the old-fashioned permanent contract. Some respondents recognise the benefit of the new system. However, because employers do not necessarily take into account women’s reproductive needs, the incentives come at the costs of high pressure and staff anxiety.

The findings confirm widespread influences of a managerialist approach to stimulate research outputs in academia. Against the background of the new family planning policy and the growing favour of managerialism in China, our paper sheds new light on the impact of the introduction of a competitive employment system on employees’ work and life balance and the interaction between employment status, reproductive behaviour and mental stress.

We provide several suggestions to policy makers and university management. It is worth noting that the fixed-term system 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. The fact that some respondents reported that some universities had introduced additional policies to improve the situation shows that university management can have the goodwill to improve. In addition to learning from international best practices, universities planning to introduce the probation-tenure system could learn from other universities in China that have made adjustments to support women. In addition, the state as a regulator of universities may consider establishing guidelines to minimize the difficulties that women academics have to face as the evaluation practices change. Supporting both employers and families simultaneously would be more effective than supporting one side alone.

Authors’ biography

Professor Bingqin Li, University of New South Wales

Dr Bingqin Li is SHARP (special hire) Professor and the Director of the Chinese Social Policy Stream at Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at University of New South Wales in Sydney. She received her PhD in Social Policy from LSE UK. Before moving to UNSW, she worked at LSE and Australian National University. Her research is on social inequality, urbanisation and local governance in China. Her current projects include local government social service delivery, disability employment and digital economy, aging, urban and community development.  Google Scholar UNSW official page

Dr Yang Shen, Shanghai Jiaotong University

Dr Yang Shen is an associate professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She did her PhD in Gender Studies at the London School of Economics. Her current research projects include women’s fertility practices, housing and intimacy and online dating in China. Her academic articles have appeared in Journal of Family Issues, China Quarterly, Habitat International, Policy Studies, among others. Her book monograph ‘Beyond tears and laughter: gender, migration and the service sector in China’ has been published by Palgrave in 2019.

Relevant publications by the authors

Shen, Y. & Li, B (2020) Policy coordination in the talent war to achieve economic upgrading: the case of four Chinese cities, Policy Studies. Online first.

Shen, Y. & Jiang, L. (2020). Labour Market Outcomes of Professional Women with Two Children After the One-Child Policy in China, Journal of Social Issues. Early view.

Shen, Y. & Jiang, L. (2020). Reproductive choices of highly educated employed women with two children under the universal two-child policy, Journal of Family Issues, 41(5): 611-635.

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