What comes to mind when someone utters the phrase “third kind of human”?

A 10-foot tall blue-skinned humanoid? How about a pale-skinned mind-reading vampire? On a recent trip to Shanghai, I learned that many Chinese believe there are three kinds of humans: men, women, and women with PhDs.

I was in Shanghai to participate in a 10-day program focused on higher education policy and planning. Participants came from highly ranked educational institutions from across the globe including Columbia in New York, Tsinghua in Beijing, and Nagoya in Japan. As a new Masters student, I was happy to learn from both my counterparts and seasoned PhD holders who challenged my biases and debated my thoughts. About two thirds of participants were female and I was encouraged that Asian educated and Western educated female students alike were unafraid to ask tough questions and be bold. Being surround by brilliant female minds was energizing; a scene like this is exactly what I like.

Imagine my surprise then, when an informal “get to know each other” session shone light on the elephant in the room: that some of our peers considered the female PhD students to be a third kind of human. At a later dinner in Shanghai, it was explained to me another way. It is also commonly believed in China that there are three types of women and they follow three distinct life paths: second class women marry first class men, first class women marry second class men, and third class women? They get PhDs. In a culture where many still judge a woman on her husband’s success, unmarried at 27 is practically considered a social disease. Parents become embarrassed if their daughters are “leftover” or “sheng nu”. If a woman is smart, and attractive enough to find a good husband, why would she waste her youth and prime child bearing years in school?

8424951686 5a776cc3bf b 200x300 A Third Kind of Human

Source: Flickr, @USDAgov

My background is Taiwanese, though I was educated in England and Canada. This is largely thanks to my parents who went against the trend then for Taiwanese students abroad by staying abroad and building a life in new countries where they knew not a soul. Even in a family as open minded as mine, it can still be difficult navigating long-standing social pressures to pursue a traditional path to happiness (read: get married, have babies, stay at home). Most days, I choose to ignore such pressures and live my life my way. Like many Western millennials, I grew up in a culture where I was told men and women could pursue whatever career they wanted. Men and women were different creatures to be sure, but the only thing hindering women from becoming doctors, or men from becoming nurses, was themselves.

Near the time I graduated from university, there was a movement towards female empowerment and women helping women. From career profiles on The Everygirl, to Office Hours on Levo League, to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s first book Lean In and subsequent non-profit community with the same name, the drive was and is continuing to be about helping women get to their version of the top. Many of my female friends and former classmates are pursuing startups, graduate degrees, and opportunities abroad with abandon. Imagine my reality check when, in the midst of pursuing a graduate degree of my own, I was hit with the real situations of bright, modern female students struggling with traditional expectations.

sheryl sandberg time magazine cover 225x300 A Third Kind of Human

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO on Time Magazine cover, Mar 2013

It was sobering to realize how much I could relate.

Nearly a century has passed since the Suffragette movement and men and women have achieved parity in many areas from the vote to educational achievement. Still, equality varies by region and reality is often different from rule. There are men all over the world who still prefer to date and marry women less educated and opinionated than themselves. Dowd, in her 2005 book Are Men Necessary famously wrote, “Males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.” I want to work towards a society where women can be themselves without social shame. Whether single or married, I believe women can achieve their version of “having it all”. My hope is that speaking about these issues will increase cohort support and am thankful to the many women bloggers, writers, and public figures that have had the courage to speak out and share their stories. Of course, I am also thankful to the men that support them and share in their journeys.

During my sojourn to Shanghai I learned as much inside as outside the classroom. My trip was as much academic as sociological. While the belief that women are a third kind of human remain, at least as the kind that some men do not want to marry, I am encouraged by the zealousness of my global counterparts, Chinese and otherwise. The female classmates I spoke with acknowledged the bias but were swayed towards pursuing graduate education because of their passion for the subject and desire to make a difference. Yes, they still wanted to marry and yes their parents were concerned that their education would hinder their chances, but it was a chance they were willing to take. Female PhDs across the globe, I salute you. While social pressures can weigh heavily on young, impressionable shoulders, thankfully they are not stopping bright women from pursuing what they want. In the words of a self-assured, composed PhD student from Peking University to her female classmates, “Pursue your own dream; let him follow you.”

Jennifer 300x300 A Third Kind of Human

Jennifer Lien

Jennifer works to get fresh research into curious minds.
Jennifer 300x300 A Third Kind of Human
Jennifer 300x300 A Third Kind of Human

Latest articles by Jennifer Lien (see all)