Young Chinese women dare to say no to workplace sexual harassment, says expert

A recent case alleging sexual harassment at Minsheng Bank underlines how Chinese women workers are resisting unwelcome attention in the workplace

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 9:48pm

Young Chinese women in the workplace are acquiring a new skill lacking in previous generations: firmly saying no to sexual harassment, a leading Chinese sexologist said, even though the country’s legal framework against sexual harassment is a work in progress.

Unlike previous submissive generations, young Chinese women, many of whom were raised as an only child, are more confident about themselves and sensitive to verbal or physical harassment, Li Yinhe, a sociology professor and an advocate of sexual freedom in China, told the SCMP. They are also more tech-savvy and aware of collecting evidence using a mobile phone and other tools, she said.

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According to a 2010 research paper in the Harvard International Law Journal by D.K. Srivastava incidents of sexual harassment are increasing rapidly in Asia, with as many as 80 per cent of Chinese working women experiencing it at some stage of their career, compared to 50 per cent in the United States, according to the paper.

“More workplace sexual harassment cases are being reported in China than in previous years,” said Li. “An important reason is that Chinese women now dare to stand up to it.”

Li was commenting on a recent sexual harassment case at a major Chinese bank, in which the victim published all harassing messages sent from her male manager, triggering a nationwide uproar.

According to the Beijing Youth Daily report, a deputy department head at the Beijing branch of China Minsheng Banking Corp had constantly sent messages to one of his women subordinates, before finally inviting her to a hotel room and threatening to put her on a redundancy list if she refused to obey.

“I am not local, and I have no power, but I have my own dignity,” the woman replied in the final message. She quit her job, and made all the messages public online.

Following a heated debate online, the bank branch announced via a mainland newspaper that it had sacked the male manager and urged him to make an apology. The bank said it had also reached out to the victim to see if the bank could offer help.

There are no independent statistics to indicate the extent of workplace sexual harassment in China. But anecdotal reports show the problem persists.

But legal settlements in sexual harassment cases are still rare partly because the China’s laws and regulations on the matter are too general to be used in court. In a similar case in New York, Chinese-born Wall Street boss Benjamin Wey was forced to pay US$5.6 million in 2016 to his former intern Hanna Bouveng after she accused him of sexual harassment and firing her when she resisted.

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In June this year, a 21-year-old intern at the Nanfang Media Group, the publisher of a number of popular newspapers in southern China, reported to police that she had been harassed and eventually raped by an intern mentor at the group. The case caught national attention for several days.

For Li, the courage to speak up against sexual harassment is spreading in Chinese society and reflects China’s changing attitude towards sex.

“Chinese people used to worry deeply about being accused of having a ‘lifestyle problem’– a euphemism for having a colourful sex life – but now not so many would think this is a serious issue.” she said.

In a 2013 survey of 1,500 women above the age of 16 conducted by the Canton Public Opinion Research Centre, 48 per cent of those aged between 16 and 25 said they had faced increased sexual harassment, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.