Burma’s Sexist School Requirements Hurt Women—And Society

By Khin Hnin Soe 7 September 2014

In this year’s matriculation exam, the 22 top-scoring students were all young women—a significant feat, especially given that the overall passing rate is usually low. Looking at these results, one may wonder whether female students in Burma are smarter than their male counterparts, or if they simply excel at taking exams. In a country where test scores are based on how well you can reproduce information from memory, it may be a matter of both. But the most important question is what these top-scoring female students will be able to achieve in the next 20 years. Will they take leading roles in various sectors?

Burma is the only country I know of where universities have different entrance requirements depending on the applicant’s gender. Here, women must score higher for admission to many of the institutions that groom students for some of the most coveted professions in the country. This is true at medical schools, engineering schools and technology schools, for example. And what’s the rational? To hinder women from reaching positions of power?

We live in a male-dominated society. The majority of government offices in Burma are headed by men, and of the 659 seats in Parliament, only 20 are held by women. In the education sector, the majority of teachers are women but there are very few women rectors. The recent appointment of a woman education minister gave a glimmer of hope that things are changing, but slowly.

Ironically, even though medical schools require women applicants to score higher than their male counterparts on entrance exams, many more women become medical students. This seems to be an interesting exception to the gender bias, but the explanation is very much rooted in gender stereotypes and our expectations for what women should aspire to become.

When I was growing up, my friends and I all wanted to be doctors. Even at the tender age of 10 or 11, and without really knowing the extent of a doctor’s duties, we would state our ambitions boldly to anyone who would listen. Looking back, I think we must have been influenced by peer pressure, as well as our parents and relatives who often told us that entering the medical field was the mark of a successful life, especially for girls.

We failed to realize then that society was encouraging us to pursue roles that we might not have found personally fulfilling. We did not have an opportunity to consider other less-common professions because everyone urged us to be “obedient” daughters and to never deviate from what was deemed the “best” path. Maybe this is one reason why many girls in Burma attend medical schools but then do not go on to actually become doctors.

Another example of society’s tendency to stereotype our professional roles is in the education sector. Women are perceived to possess maternal instincts, and that has led society to think that we are better suited than men to become teachers. Many parents also consider teaching to be a respectful profession for their daughters. But again, the result is that we end up with teachers who are not truly passionate about teaching because they were thrust into the role by others. I hope more women in Burma learn to identify and pursue their own interests in life.

In other countries, women are encouraged to enroll in science and technology courses, but here, they are deterred because they need to score higher on entrance exams to study at these universities. In my opinion, it’s downright discrimination. I worry about the future of Burma’s technological development because we are missing contributions from many women who could have otherwise become great engineers.

Chie Ikeya, an assistant professor in Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, wrote about the history of Burmese women in her book, “Reconfiguring Women, Colonialism and Modernity in Burma.” She explains that women in Burma once had a reputation for being independent and equal to men, and that this was known not only by British colonial civil service officers, but also by Western writers. If women here enjoyed such rights during the old times, isn’t it a shame that we no longer do today? As a nation, doesn’t it mean that we have not progressed much in terms of being inclusive of all citizens?

According to the latest census, women outnumber men in the national population. Given that, it is about time for the people of Burma—especially government officials—to start offering opportunities for women to take up more significant roles, rather than confining us to roles traditionally perceived as suitable. Our society only needs to give women a chance, and then I am confident that we can surprise the sceptics. Indeed, women, as the bigger population, could become a driving force behind the development of Burma.

Khin Hnin Soe is the principal of Myanmar Metropolitan College in Rangoon. She can be reached at [email protected]