China's women professionals challenge workplace inequality

Support groups sprout up on mainland, inspired by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's book

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:40am

Women professionals on the mainland face more sex discrimination now than they did 20 years ago, studies say, and support groups inspired by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In are sprouting up in Beijing and Shanghai to challenge this resurgence.

Last year, a woman who asked to be known only as Chen, who has worked for several years as a senior marketing analyst and has a degree from a top overseas university, thought she would find another job after her previous company laid off half its staff.

Eight months later, although she has lowered her expectations and is applying for junior positions, she is hitting a brick wall with companies refusing to hire her because of her gender.

"The interviewers would be very direct with me and say that even though I have the qualifications they're looking for, since they expect me to get married and have a child soon they won't hire me," said the 28-year-old.

The central government requires companies to give women 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, compared to 10 weeks in Hong Kong. Research suggests that companies discriminate against women in part to avoid having to provide this benefit.

In 2009, the Centre for Women's Law and Legal Services at Peking University surveyed 3,000 women over a year and found that one in four women were denied a job due to their sex.

Furthermore, 25 of those surveyed said they were forced to sign labour contracts containing clauses forbidding them to get married or pregnant during a set period of time. More than 20 per cent also said employers cut salaries of women who become pregnant or gave birth, and 11 per cent lost jobs for having a baby.

A group of young professional women in Beijing, calling themselves "Lean In Beijing", have started the first support group in China inspired by Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In her book, Sandberg advises women on how to achieve their full leadership potential and encourages readers to form "circles" with other women for shared growth and support.

Since its launch in August, Lean In Beijing has organised several public panels and networking events. Several informal circles and reading groups have also formed in Shanghai. A Lean In Beijing organiser, Charlotte Han, who works a "tedious" job at a state-owned enterprise, said she found Sandberg's book life-changing.

"Chinese girls are educated to be gentle, quiet and passive, to find a stable job and a suitable man, get married and settle down. Ambition isn't considered a good thing for women," she said. "After reading the book, I want to take a proactive attitude to pursuing what I want and engage in meaningful and challenging work that helps me to learn and grow."

The group created supportive communities for women who may feel isolated when dealing with problems, Han said. "In addition to the public events, we help women form small groups with other women in their industry so that they give each other advice and support."

During a visit to China last month, Sandberg met several Lean In Beijing members on September 12 and then wrote a statement on her Facebook page about the "unique" situation for women in China: "The fact that women could be seen as too educated to be desirable for marriage in a country with 24 million unmarried men shows that cultural norms about the balance of success within couples run deep." But researchers say this wasn't as prevalent 20, or perhaps even 10, years ago.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that there is much more gender discrimination in hiring in China now than a generation ago," said Leta Hong Fincher, a sociology PhD candidate at Tsinghua University and author of the upcoming book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

"This is in large part because of structural changes and market reforms. In the early 1990s, China still had a planned economy where jobs were assigned to women and men, and the Communist Party mandated gender equality in the workplace. But by the mid-1990s, as market reforms took off, there were massive layoffs - 43 million lost their jobs and women were often the first to be let go and the last to be rehired."

Sandy To, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Hong Kong, said that in her interviews with professional women aged between 26 and 34, none complained of facing significant discrimination alongside male colleagues.

"Generally, the women I interviewed didn't have many issues, although some said they felt they had to 'carry themselves aggressively and conceal their femininity' when doing business with men - such as by drinking a lot and speaking in rough language - in order to be treated equally."

A 39-year-old woman executive from Fujian province, who is the chief financial officer of a multinational audit firm in Singapore, said new female university graduates in China may face more obstacles today than graduates 10 years ago.

"Nowadays, when my company recruits, we have some concerns about young female graduates. It's mainly about the family commitments these ladies can have that could impact the time and effort they could devote to professional life. So if companies compare two people with similar backgrounds, being male or female could make a difference."

This woman, who plans on having a child soon while continuing to work, said that besides discrimination from employers, younger women's attitudes about work-life balance was also a factor.

"When I was starting out, I worked very long hours and wanted to build up my career before thinking of a family. Now, more women value having a more balanced lifestyle overall, even if they don't have children yet. This could be a reason why they may play a role in holding themselves back from more senior positions," she said.