No Women Need Apply

Chinese Women Fight to End Workplace Discrimination

“Applicants limited to male.” 23-year-old job-hunter Huang Rong (not her real name) noticed this line in a job announcement only after she had heard nothing from the recruiter and gone back to check the advertisement online. She had graduated from Xinyang Normal University in Henan province with a degree in social work this summer, and she said the job sounded perfect for someone who enjoyed talking to people: a clerk position, combining executive assistants’ responsibilities with more creative tasks such as coming up with marketing campaign ideas for the well-established New Oriental Cooking School, a company based in her favorite city, Hangzhou.

“I didn’t understand why a clerk’s position would be open only to men,” Huang said in a telephone interview from Hangzhou. So she called the school and was told that the job required travel and some physically demanding tasks such as carrying the school director’s suitcases. Huang made it clear that she didn’t mind traveling and she was physically quite strong, but her application was rejected nonetheless. She went to the school to appeal in person but to no avail.

“I felt very disappointed, like a deflated balloon,” Huang recalls. “The more I thought about it, the more angry I became.” But she had read about the case of Cao Ju and so she decided to sue the school for discrimination. Cao, another young female graduate (Cao Ju is a pseudonym), had made history in 2012 by successfully filing China’s first gender discrimination lawsuit against the Beijing company that refused to consider her for an assistant job because they would only accept a man. The case ended when the company offered Cao 30,000 yuan (a little less than U.S.$5,000) in an out-of-court settlement in January this year.

(IISH/Stefan R. Landsberger Collections)

A Party propaganda poster from 1953. The text reads: ‘Study the battle spirit of the Red Army during the Long March, conquer nature, build up our nation.’

(IISH/Stefan R. Landsberger Collections)

A Party propaganda poster from 1962 titled: ‘When the People Work Hard, the Flowers Are Fragrant.’

Both cases shed light on the problem of widespread gender discrimination and inequality in China. Cao and Huang are just two of millions of victims. According to a survey conducted by the All China Women’s Federation, the Chinese government’s official feminist organ, in 2011 91.9% of female students polled said they had experienced gender discrimination by employers.

As China’s economy has slowed in the recent years, graduates face ever stiffer competition. In 2013, a record 7 million students graduated yet they entered a job market that had shrunk by 15% in a year. Men seem to have an upper hand in this tough competition.

This situation is a far cry from the days before China’s economic reforms, when graduates were assigned jobs by the government, regardless of gender. Nowadays, after they graduate, students have to fend for themselves. While researching his recently published book Class in Contemporary China, David Goodman, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, discovered that the market economy has led to increased gender inequality since the 1990s. “Women are unequal in society to start off with,” he says, “so without encouragement or state intervention (as before) their representation in all forms of social activity will decrease.”

According to Lu and other experts, some private companies try to avoid employing women of child-bearing age and sometimes fire them when they become pregnant. They also worry the relaxed family planning policy, which now allows only-children to have a second child, may make some companies even less willing to hire young women.

The income gap between men and women has widened in the past three decades. The latest official statistics suggest that income for urban women is 67.3% that of men while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. Another telling sign is the employment rate. In 2010, among the population above 16 years of age, the female employment rate was 61.7% and the male rate 76.1%.

“Gender discrimination is ingrained and institutionalized in China,” explains Geoffrey Crothall, Communications Director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin and an expert on employment issues in China. “It begins in school when girls have to get higher scores than boys to get into certain university courses. It continues in the workplace.”

For female students, the biggest hurdle in securing a job is gender discrimination, according to Lu Ping, a top gender expert who runs the Media Monitor for Women Network, an NGO in Beijing that monitors gender-related reports in the media.

On China’s many employment websites, one can often spot job advertisements that specifically request good-looking women. One sales person’s position demands “a pretty woman with height no less than 1.7 meters.” Wuhan Science and Technology University put up an ad last year looking for a counselor who “must be a male, under 26-years-old if holding a master degree or under 29 for a Ph.D., and must be unmarried.” And New Oriental Cooking School is far from the only recruiter that limits some positions to men only, for implausible reasons.

“The blatant discrimination in advertising occurs because people think it is perfectly alright to assign work on the basis of gender. These attitudes, if anything, are getting more common among employers, especially in sought-after professions, because they have the luxury to pick and choose,” says Crothall.

“There’s very little a woman can do when she is being discriminated against by an employer,” says Lu, who closely followed both Cao’s and Huang’s lawsuits.

But Huang was determined. “I wanted to go ahead even though I didn’t have the money for a lawyer,” says Huang, who gets by with piecemeal jobs and still hasn’t found full time employment. A friend introduced her to Cao Ju who offered not only useful advice and encouragement but also some funds to cover her legal costs. “There’s no better way to spend the money,” says Cao Ju. “Squeezing money out of the court case was not my intention. Fighting against sex discrimination is.” Cao also organized an online petition to rally support for Huang. So far, more than 400 women from all over the country have signed it.

Again with friends’ help, Huang found Nanjing-based lawyer Xu Ying who was willing to take on her case. “To me, the case is blatant sex discrimination,” says Xu. “Even the recruiter’s excuses rest on gender stereotypes: women are not suited to travel or they’re too weak to carry a suitcase. The only thing that matters here should be the applicant’s ability, not the person’s sex.”

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Promotion of Employment, adopted in 2007, includes explicit language forbidding gender discrimination in hiring and noting that, “When an employing unit recruits female workers, it shall not have such provisions as restrict female workers from getting married or bearing a child included in the labor contract.” The law also states that a job-seeker has the right to sue the employer in cases of gender discrimination. Why then have there been so few of such cases in China?

“Generally speaking, people in China are not very aware of their legal rights,” explains lawyer Xu. “There’s no tradition of suing an employer. And of course, going to court is expensive, time consuming, and the whole legal system doesn’t seem to be geared to cope with such cases.”

Indeed, it took well over a year for a Beijing court just to accept Cao’s case. It refused the case at first, citing a lack of precedent. Huang fared a little better. After back and forth negotiations with a Hangzhou court, the hearing took place on September 10, with the accused absent. The verdict is due in December.

A man from the Oriental Cooking School’s HR department, who refused to disclose his identity, said there was no need to appear for the hearing as the court will make a correct judgment according to facts. “Everything the plaintiff said was a lie. Sex discrimination? If so, why are there so many women teachers working at our school?”

Given the difficulties of filing a lawsuit, some have sought other methods to tackle gender discrimination. On December 26, 2013, eight female students from different cities in China wrote to their local governments to report job listings they suspected were discriminatory. Altogether, they found 41 such cases. 80% of jobs advertised were white-collar jobs that were not physically demanding, offered mostly by privately-owned enterprises. The women received hardly any response from the authorities. But young women from across the country continued the reports and they have gradually drawn more responses from the authorities.

The reports and lawsuits take place at a time when China is witnessing an increase in women’s rights activism.

In November 2013, ten university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, staged a demonstration in front of a local government building in Wuhan to protest invasive gynecological exams imposed on women applying for civil servant jobs.

Earlier that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads, silently voicing their anger against discrimination in admissions standards at universities. Some universities set higher standards for entrance examination scores for female students. In Beijing, three women dressed up in blood-stained wedding gowns to protest domestic violence; in Guangzhou, women queued in front of a toilet to protest against the lack of public toilets for women.

Lu of the Media Monitor for Women Network believes these examples of activism are significant. “They show a new level of awareness,” she says. “Compared to 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. And they are willing to take a stand.”

Lu also praises the courage of Huang and Cao. “They’ve taken a big risk. If their true identities were exposed, probably no one would ever hire them again.”

There have been discussions among academics and legal experts about drafting a new anti-sex discrimination law. But Lu thinks that existing laws, at least on paper, already cover the major issues. “The real question is to implement them and supervise them,” she said.

Crowthall says such cases raise awareness of gender discrimination. “When cases like the current one do get heard, they play a very important role in bringing the issue of gender discrimination to the attention of the general public and perhaps making employers think twice before excluding women from job openings,” he says.

Huang’s Lawyer, Xu Ying, says it’s not easy to predict the outcome of the case, even though the result of Cao’s case is encouraging. But if the outcome doesn’t go their way, she and her client vow to fight on.