Discrimination Against China’s Working Women
Crystal Reid examines the impact of China’s deep-rooted gender stereotypes on women in the workplace
I remind myself not to keep talking once I’ve answered the question, to take a deep breath and wait for my interviewers to respond. I’m on a conference call with three editors and the head of HR for a dream journalism job in China. I’ve already passed two writing tests with flying colours and the interview seems to be going well. Having exhausted all their questions, the editors ask the HR rep if she has anything to add. “How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children?”, she reels off with no hint of embarrassment or regret. As a Brit, I’m shocked and confused as to why these questions are relevant, but I answer anyway: “33”, “Yes” and “No”. Little do I know that I’ve just given the worst answers imaginable for a Chinese employer
Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, once famously said that “Women hold up half the sky”. This seemingly woke proclamation, in a country were nearly all women’s feet were bound until 1906 and where daughters were sold to the highest bidder until 1950, was banded around during the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. During this time, women were utilised as “sexless comrades”, labouring alongside men for the Communist cause. However uncomfortable the motive, it’s sad to see that such a decree of equality has not penetrated China’s modern age. Even though the world’s most populous country boasts one of the highest percentages of women in the workforce (61.5 per cent), various social, societal and governmental factors see women routinely discriminated against and downright excluded from promising careers. Women make up less than ten per cent of top-level positions in China’s listed companies and are paid on average 36 per cent less than men for similar work. This compares to around 29 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, in the UK.
The invasive questions I faced in my interview stemmed from a societal stereotype exacerbated by one of China’s most famous and controversial government strategies — the One Child Policy. Implemented in 1980 and only officially scrapped in 2015, it made having a child the single most important thing in a woman’s life. A married woman of childbearing age who is yet to birth said child, therefore, is a risky investment for employers who, under Chinese law, must shoulder the entire burden of maternity leave. Although the One Child Policy meant women had more opportunities to focus on their careers once they’d reached their birthing quota of one, they were unlikely to get anywhere fast in the time between marriage and motherhood. And as the majority of Chinese women still choose to have a single child, as parents have been conditioned to focus all resources on a sole offspring, the trend, and stereotype, persists.
As witnessed in the attitude of the HR representative at my interview, such discrimination is not generally hidden or considered taboo. According to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch, 19 per cent of recruitment adverts for civil service jobs in China listed a requirement or preference for male candidates. Where women were not explicitly excluded, many ads stated that only married women with children would be considered. Major Chinese tech firms, including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, were also called out for trying to lure male candidates with the promise of working alongside “beautiful women” and setting physical requirements, such as height and weight, for female applicants, while other listings stated that only “manly” women need apply. It seems that, in the world of work in China, women must fit neatly into one of three boxes: the beautiful trophy hire, the stable mother, or the techy tomboy. The report’s release sparked modest uproar, which in turn prompted the government to publish guidelines urging employers not to ask women about their marital status or childbearing plans in job interviews. Jaw-droppingly, they also felt the need to specify that women should not be asked to take pregnancy tests as part of the recruitment process.
But the Chinese government is now facing a dilemma when it comes to women in the workplace. Working women contribute 41 per cent of GDP, a sizeable chunk of change for a country whose economy is currently at its weakest level in three decades. However, with a rapidly ageing population, China also needs women to have children, hence the scrapping of the One Child Policy. One of the most obvious manifestations of this is the term shengnu, “leftover women”, which is widely used in China to refer to unmarried women over the age of 27. While there is debate over who initially coined the phrase, it was enthusiastically picked up by the government, who hoped it would shame women into marrying and performing their procreational duties early, therefore addressing China’s gaping gender imbalance. Thanks to the One Child Policy and a preference for boys over girls, which led to high levels of abortion and infanticide of female foetuses, China has approximately 33 million more men than women. Women who selfishly decide to focus on their careers instead of marriage, therefore, are only exacerbating the problem. Today, young Chinese women find themselves pressured to settle down at all levels — by their immediate families, wider society and the government.
In order to solve both its economic and demographic problems, China must update its ideas about gender, both in the workplace and the home. Real laws, not just guidelines, must protect women from discriminatory hiring practices, and husbands and wives must be treated as equal partners in the family. There is no such thing as paternity leave in China, and a man who stays at home to look after his children would be seen as bringing shame on the family. Ultimately, the Chinese people themselves must check their prejudices and allow women to decide if and when they have a family, and if, when and how they pursue a career.
In my personal situation, I was eventually offered the job after the publication’s British editor – who was also apparently appalled by the probing questions into my reproductive plans – intervened. I, however, decided not to take the job for a number of reasons, one of which was that I did indeed plan to have a child in the near future. I couldn’t bear the thought of having someone fight my corner, only to give HR the satisfaction of saying “I told you so”, nine months down the line. As much as I hate to admit it, at least in my case, the stereotype was spot on.