Gender discrimination in China is resurfacing as employers seek pretty women, or men
Lijia Zhang says China’s economic development has brought back regressive ideas about women – evident in sexist job adverts – that is fuelling a widening gender pay gap
“Looking for a pretty female, must be taller than 1.70 metres, with fine features.”
This is not a personal advertisement but a job posting for a salesperson. I came across it some 22 years ago when I reported on a job fair in Beijing. It was the first time I noticed such blatant sexism in recruitment advertising. Having grown up with Mao’s declaration that “women hold up half of the sky”, I was shocked.
Sadly, gender discrimination has worsened. A recent Human Rights Watch report on gender discrimination in employment in China finds widespread prejudice in recruitment advertisements. For example: “Woman must possess female beauty that exceeds nature itself” and, “Beautiful girls needed.”
China’s rapid economic development has brought unprecedented opportunities to millions of people, myself included. I managed to rise from a factory worker to a journalist and writer.
But, overall, women have benefited less than men. According to the World Economic Forum, China’s gender parity ranking fell from 57 in 2008 to 100 in 2017. A smaller proportion of women are working today and the gender pay gap is widening.
The Human Rights Watch report points to discrimination in employment as key to the widening gender pay gap. The report found 19 per cent of civil servant job postings in 2018 explicitly preferred men.
Contrast this with the 1950s when my mother was allocated a job at a state-owned factory. She considered herself lucky even though she got stuck with acid pickling, which involved lifting heavy machine parts into a tank filled with chemicals. Mao’s ideal of gender equality was to deny the physical differences between men and women. The model women at the time were the “iron maidens” of Dazhai village who dressed like men and could carry as much as them.
These days, the pendulum has swung the other way. At a Tencent party last year, female staff had to use their teeth to open water bottles held between male employees' legs. Sexual objectification of women is rampant in job advertisements, that, for example, demand women with “no obvious scars on the face” and a body weight “below 65kg”.
Gender discrimination is deeply ingrained in Chinese society, which, for centuries, was dominated by Confucianism which places women as inferior to men. Today, some of traditional attitudes and practices that had been repressed by Mao have resurfaced.
Some companies set much higher recruiting standards for women, while others refuse to hire women of childbearing age, a practice that has worsened after the end of the one-child policy. Employers view women without children as employees who will potentially take maternity leave twice.
In theory, China has enough laws and regulations to protect the rights of female employees. But the lack of a specific enforcement mechanism often leaves victims in a vulnerable position. Besides, given the intense competition for jobs, employers have the luxury of being choosy. The authorities rarely pursue those who violate the rules and employers can usually get away with a few extra discriminatory requirements.
But not always. In 2012, a young woman applied for an executive assistant position with a tutorial centre but was rejected on the grounds that the job was reserved for men only. She filed China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit and won a small settlement.
A year later, another graduate woman won a similar case. When I interviewed her, I was encouraged by her fighting spirit. Other successful lawsuits followed, but the compensation usually amounted to around US$300.
These cases were part of the feminist activism that has emerged since 2012, when three women paraded the streets in bloodstained wedding gowns to protest against domestic violence. Others followed suit, queuing up in a public toilet to highlight the shortage of female toilets, and shaving their heads in protest against different university admission standards for women.
Some activists set up a Weibo account to monitor and report violations. Some of their complaints were addressed.
Sadly, the authorities’ crackdown on activism has hampered these efforts. The growth of gender discrimination in employment has been challenged but it may spread wider in the near future.
Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator