A woman in Shanghai takes a break during a boxing class. Educated young women today are more aware of international norms. Photo: Reuters

China's savvy young women begin to tear down the walls of gender discrimination

Lijia Zhang says a landmark court ruling is just part of a wider movement

Huang Rong (not her real name) made history by winning China's first court ruling relating to gender discrimination in employment. But the verdict, though hailed as groundbreaking by Chinese media, wasn't enough for the 23-year-old. She has filed a follow-up lawsuit, demanding a formal apology from the New Oriental Cooking School, a company that rejected her job application last year on the basis of her gender.

The second hearing took place last week in Hangzhou .

The newly graduated Huang had applied for a clerk's position with New Oriental. Her application, however, wasn't even considered: the position was reserved for male applicants because the job required travelling and some physically taxing tasks such as carrying suitcases for the headmaster, Huang was told when she phoned the school.

She made it clear she didn't mind travelling and that she was strong - all to no avail. Inspired by a similar case in Beijing several months earlier involving another young graduate, Cao Ju (also a pseudonym), Huang decided to take the employer to court.

Last November, a Hangzhou court ruled that the culinary school had violated her right to equal employment and must pay her 2,000 yuan (HK$2,500) in compensation for mental distress. Though the sum was less than the 30,000 yuan Cao received, this ruling was significant as the award was made by the court, rather than in an out-of-court settlement, as in Cao's case.

Sex discrimination is widespread in China. According to a survey by the All-China Women's Federation in 2011, nearly 92 per cent of female students said they had experienced gender discrimination in employment. One 2010 survey conducted by the China University of Political Science and Law discovered that, during recruiting, some 69 per cent of employers had gender requirements.

The vast majority of victims of gender discrimination keep silent. I am delighted that young women like Huang and Cao have had the courage to break that silence. It is risky; if their real identities are exposed, they'll probably never get a job in China again. In addition, it is expensive, the process is long, the outcome uncertain and the legal system isn't geared to cope with such cases.

Sex discrimination is rooted in gender inequality, which is ingrained in Chinese culture. Baby girls are not as welcome as baby boys, and girls often have to get better grades in school to be accepted into university. This unfair treatment continues into the workplace.

These recent lawsuits come as China witnesses a rise in women's rights activism. In November 2013, 10 university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, protested in front of a local government building in Wuhan against invasive gynaecological examinations imposed on women applying for civil service jobs. Earlier that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads in protest at discrimination in university admissions standards.

Since December 2013, dozens of female university students from various cities have written to their local authorities and labour bureaus to report job advertisements which they suspect were examples of sex discrimination.

I applaud such activities. Compared with the older generation, these educated young women are more aware of international norms. They are internet-savvy and know how to use modern technology to get in touch with like-minded people and seek help.

Huang told me she wouldn't have made it this far without the help and support from many women, almost all strangers, who share her interest in promoting women's rights. Among them was Cao, the other plaintiff, who not only funded Huang's legal costs but also organised an online petition in support of her action.

Huang's case has attracted a fair amount of attention in both domestic and international media, which is a welcome development. Hopefully, it will make people more aware of gender discrimination, make employers think twice about excluding women applicants without sound reasons, and encourage more women who suffer sex discrimination to put up a fight as well.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China's savvy young women begin to fight the gender bias