Human rights in China

Sexist adverts and fear of maternity leave: how gender inequality in China’s job market is ‘getting worse’

Seeking train conductors with normal faces among the cases cited as report suggests that China is going backwards on discrimination

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2018, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 10:50am

When Erica Shu, a University of Hong Kong final year student, arrived for her internship at a Shanghai brokerage last year, she was shocked to find just one woman aged under 30 among the 30 people working in the investment department.

She said other employees later told her that the department had stopped hiring women two years earlier because female candidates had “low value” in the finance industry.

Women would be filtered out during the hiring process, because managers believed they would not be able to cope with the job’s long hours and frequent business trips.

“I only realised then how different the working environment on the mainland is,” Shu, who is from the mainland, told the South China Morning Post.  

Despite rapid economic growth and a rising education level among women over the past few decades, gender discrimination in the Chinese job market and workplace shows no sign of improvement, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Monday.

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The report, Only Men Need Apply, said gender discrimination is common in both the public and private sectors and in some cases is worsening.

“In essence, things are getting worse,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “If you look at labour force participation, if you look at the gap between women’s participation and men’s participation, if you look at gender parity, everything is going in the wrong direction. This is an issue that affects 700 million people.”

The discrimination ranged from not being considered for positions to demands that they comply with certain physical traits, the report stated.

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For example, 13 per cent of the jobs on last year’s national civil service list specified “men only”, “men preferred” or “suitable for men”. This year the proportion had risen to 19 per cent, the report said.

None of the jobs last year specified a preference for women, and only one did so this year. 

“Rather than showing leadership to combat this gender discrimination in advertising, the government is indulging and actually fuelling it,” said Roth. “If the official job recruitment adverts show these signs, it’s a signal to companies that it is OK to do this.”

In the private sector, the report singled out several tech companies, including Tencent, Alibaba, Meituan and Baidu, for advertising jobs reserved for men. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

It also took them to task for objectifying women in their recruitment campaigns by using the physical attributes of female employees to attract male applicants.

These companies published recruitment adverts boasting of beautiful female staff to attract male applicants, according to Human Rights Watch, which analysed 36,000 job adverts from 2013 to 2018. 

Videos included male employees saying this was the main reason they joined, and why they were “so happy every day” at work.

“Private companies often use multimedia advertising of job vacancies, including posters, fliers and videos,” the report said. “Some of them, ostensibly intended to be creative and playful, send deeply sexist messages.”

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Meituan, China’s largest provider of on-demand online services, denied officially approving a 2012 on-campus recruitment poster that the report cited.

It issued a statement stating that it has strict policies to prohibit discrimination and that all content relating to its official recruitment posts must abide by these.

A spokesperson for Alibaba said women accounted for a third of its management positions, and that the company has clear policies on equality of opportunity in recruitment regardless of gender.

“Alibaba will conduct stricter reviews of the recruiting advertisements to ensure compliance with our policy,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Tencent has apologised for its discriminatory advertisements.

“These incidents clearly do not reflect our values,” they said. “We have investigated these incidents and are making immediate changes. We are sorry they occurred and we will take swift action to ensure they do not happen again.”

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Referring to Baidu job adverts cited in the report, a Baidu spokesperson said: “We deeply regret the instances where our job postings did not align with Baidu’s values. These postings – which were identified and removed prior to release of the Human Rights Watch Report – were isolated instances that in no way reflect our company’s dedication to workplace equality.”

They added: “Of our 40,000 employees, 45 per cent are female – a number that is also reflected in mid and senior positions.”

As with the government, private companies do have regulations to ensure equality of opportunity, but suffer from a lack of implementation. “It is not enough to have a nice, broad policy,” said Roth. “What is needed is serious implementation.”

Meanwhile, in Hebei province, women hoping to become train conductors were told in one typical advert that they must weigh less than 65kg (143lb), said Human Rights Watch, and have “normal facial features, no tattoos, no obvious scars on face, neck or arms, good skin tone, no incurable skin conditions”. 

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“There are societal prejudices about the capacities of women and the job loyalty of women that lie behind these discriminatory preferences for men,” said Roth.

A 2017 survey by Chinese job platform Zhaopin found that 22 per cent of Chinese women had experienced severe discrimination when seeking employment, compared with 14 per cent of men. 

Reasons for the persistent discrimination against women in the job market can be manifold, recruitment specialists said. 

Simon Lance, managing director for Greater China at Hays recruitment company, said the discrimination might not be the result of conscious bias.

“In mainland China, some of the advertisements and the questions that are asked during the recruitment process are not as politically correct and do not promote equal opportunity as strongly as in some other international labour markets,” Lance said.

One of the biggest issues for employers is the minimum 98 days of paid maternity leave that women are allowed on the mainland. In some provinces and municipalities the leave is even longer, running to 128 days in Beijing and 190 days in Henan province.

Wary of having to foot the bill for the leave and find replacements, some employers looking for staff specify that they must be men, or that any women applicants must be married with children.

Lance said women in China are very likely to be questioned about their family plans at the interview stage. 

“Elsewhere around the world, it would be considered unacceptable to ask a point-blank question about your marital or child status,” Lance said. “In China, those questions are more likely to be asked in an interview.” 

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The rights group said the situation could have worsened with the relaxation of the one-child policy.

“In late 2015, China abolished the long-standing one-child policy and allowed each family to have two children. This could further worsen gender discrimination in hiring, as employers may be even less willing to hire women without children based on the assumption that they now could take two maternity leaves during the course of their employment,” it said.

By some measures, that bleaker outlook has already been realised, with China falling one place to 100th among 144 countries and territories in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report.

The fall was attributed to the relaxation of the one-child policy, with employers showing a stronger preference for male workers who wouldn’t take paid maternity leave.

“The world is moving ahead in comparison with China,” said Roth. “China keeps falling further and further behind on the job parity index, in a society where the government tries to control everything. You have to say the government bears a significant part of the blame here.”

Human Rights Watch said employers were able to get away with such discrimination because it was not adequately defined in Chinese law and there were few effective enforcement mechanisms.

Wang Quanxing, a labour law professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, agreed.

“Law enforcement in China is simply not tough enough on gender discrimination, and this encourages companies’ discriminatory practices,” Wang said. 

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He said courts were generally reluctant to accept cases involving gender discrimination, and when women did spend the money and time to sue employers, the sums awarded were too minor to act as a deterrent.

In 2013, university graduate Cao Ju sued the tutoring school Juren Academy in Beijing for refusing to hire her as an administrative assistant because it considered “men only”. 

The Haidian District People’s Court accepted the case only after public pressure, when more than 100 university students signed a petition, but Juren settled it by paying Cao 30,000 yuan (US$4,800).

Three women have since filed similar cases in Hangzhou, Beijing and Guangzhou, and been awarded just 2,000 yuan (US$318) each in damages.

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Wang said this was partly because damages for “the loss of employment opportunity” was hard to quantify, unlike an amount in salary owed by an employer.

Geoffrey Crothall, media programme director at Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation China Labour Bulletin, said he was hopeful that more women would be inspired by the four cases brought.

For change to happen, it will take “brave women taking legal actions, taking a stance on social media and forcing people to confront the issue”, he said.

In the meantime, Erica Shu plans to give the mainland job market a miss and concentrate her search on Hong Kong.

“I have been to many women and career events organised by investment banks [in Hong Kong], and never felt being a female would undermine my career,” she said.