Job advertisements explicitly seeking male applicants, expressing preferences for men, or sexually objectifying women have become widespread in the technology industry and other sectors of the Chinese economy despite rarely-enforced laws intended to promote gender equality in hiring, according to a new report.
In the report, titled “’Only Men Need Apply’: Gender Discrimination in Job Advertisements in China,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) identified patterns of discrimination in ads posted by some of China’s largest internet and technology companies, including Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and Huawei.
A 2016 recruitment video posted by search engine company Baidu on social media included a male employee explaining that he was “so happy every day” to work with “beautiful girls.” A 2017 ad for content reviewers at the company sought men with “strong ability to work under pressure, able to work on weekends, holidays, and night shifts.”
In 2015, phone manufacturer Huawei promoted a job fair with a message promising the opportunity to “marry a fair-skinned, rich, and beautiful” woman.
“These job ads reflect traditional and deeply discriminatory views,” the report states, “that women are less physically, intellectually, and psychologically capable than men; that women are their families’ primary sources of child care and thus unable to be fully committed to their jobs or will eventually leave full-time paid employment to have a family; and that accommodating maternity leave is unacceptably inconvenient or costly for the company or agency.”
The HRW report analyzed 36,000 job advertisements posted on websites and social media between 2013 and 2018. Beyond those that included explicit gender requirements, many others sought specific physical characteristics in female applicants or highlighted the attractiveness of current female employees to appeal to male applicants.
Though the research was not limited to the technology industry, Sophie Richardson, China director for HRW, said many job ads from tech companies were “jaw-dropping or unapologetic” in their preference for male candidates.
Recruitment ads for e-commerce giant Alibaba have promoted the “beautiful girls” and “goddesses” working there. One posted before International Women’s Day in 2013 featured female employees in sexually suggestive positions and stated, “They are independent but not proud, sensitive but not melodramatic. They want to be your co-worker. Do you want that too?”
Tencent, which runs China’s biggest messaging app WeChat, is also cited for objectifying its female staffers. An article published by its official recruitment WeChat account quoted a male employee explaining that he took the job because of “a primal impulse” due to the attractiveness of the women who interviewed him.
One troubling discovery in HRW’s research was that gender inequality in China has gotten worse in recent years. China has fallen for nine years straight in the World Economic Forum’s gender parity rankings, dropping from 57 in 2008 to 100 out of 144 countries in 2017.
Though many of the examples in the report involve prominent tech companies, Richardson stressed that it was not intended to suggest their handling of gender issues is worse than other industries. Due to the government’s censorship and hostility toward human rights groups, researchers focused on job listings and ads that were available online and those often happened to be technology-related.
“It was mostly because so much of the advertising takes place not just in traditional job fairs... Their ads, in particular, were very visible,” she said.
Richardson did note, however, that the technology industry’s efforts to present itself as progressive and forward-thinking invites added scrutiny.
“It sort of holds itself out as being cosmopolitan and modern,” she said. That tech giants engage in these practices anyway serves as “a pretty powerful indicator of how deeply entrenched these ideas are.”
Human Rights Watch is also highly critical of the Chinese government’s own recruiting practices. Researchers found 13 percent of civil service job listings in 2017 specified a requirement or preference for men, and that figure rose to 19 percent in 2018. More than half of jobs listed by the Ministry of Public Security in 2017 sought only male applicants. Some listings only allowed women if they were already married with children.
“Why do your own ads do nothing but break the law and further entrench gender stereotypes?” Richardson asked.
Technology companies singled out in the report have issued statements apologizing for the conduct described, insisting these examples do not represent their values, and asserting their commitment to equality.
“Tencent values diverse backgrounds and recruits staff based on talent and ability,” a Tencent spokesperson said in a statement to Circa Tuesday. “These incidents clearly do not reflect our values. 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.”
"Our track record of not just hiring but promoting women in leadership positions speaks for itself," an Alibaba spokeswoman said in a statement to Reuters. Baidu called the discriminatory postings “isolated instances” and a spokesperson told CNN the company “deeply” regrets them.
“I’m glad they’re terribly sorry and they won’t do it again,” Richardson said. “That’s the right response.”
Despite the corporations’ protests, though, these ads were easy to find and some were posted relatively recently. They were only taken down after HRW and the media inquired about them. Richardson also questioned the position of several companies that the percentage of female workers and executives they have hired mitigates HRW’s concerns.
“As if that was an excuse,” she said. “All that makes an organization like mine wonder is, how are those women being treated?”
According to Richardson, the companies were far less responsive when contacted by HRW last fall. At the time of the report’s publication, only job board platform Zhilian Zhaopin had responded to a letter the organization sent to the Chinese government and several companies about the report. In its letter, Zhaopin explained the steps it takes to review and screen job listings to abide by labor laws and prevent discrimination.
Despite those policies, HRW found ads on the site in January 2018 that included banned words and ads that explicitly set higher standards for female applicants than for men.
Sina News headline on today’s Foreign Ministry presser zeroes in on @HRW gender discrimination report rather than other journo qs re Xi-Modi meeting, SCS, & the highly deadly Chinese tourist bus accident in NK. Sina editor subtlety highlighting this issue?https://t.co/HMbcVpQFmu pic.twitter.com/Y7JbOYlsCD— Darius Longarino 龙大瑞 (@DariusLongarino) April 24, 2018
Other research has also identified widespread evidence of gender discrimination in Chinese workplaces. A 2017 survey published by Zhaopin revealed that 22 percent of women experienced severe or very severe discrimination when seeking employment, compared to 14 percent of men.
According to Zhaopin, women faced a longer wait for promotions than men and a larger percentage of women were never promoted at all. Less than 30 percent of participants in the survey reported having women as direct supervisors.
Younger women and married women without children were the most likely to be discriminated against. Women with graduate degrees also reported experiencing more severe discrimination than those with less education.
Another new study has identified some signs of progress in China. A report on gender parity in the Asia Pacific region by the McKinsey Global Institute found that women contribute 41 percent of China’s GDP, above the combined average of 36 percent for the region.
China is home to 114 self-made female billionaires, the most in the world and nearly ten times as many as the U.S., according to McKinsey. A 2015 Chinese government report found 55 percent of new internet businesses were being founded by women, and China has one of the highest female-to-male ratios of information and communications technology entrepreneurs in the world.
McKinsey’s research highlighted significant opportunities for improvement as well. It estimates advancing women’s equality in China could increase GDP by $2.6 trillion, or 13 percent.
“China can build on its emerging strength in women’s entrepreneurship in the e-commerce and technology sectors to continue to encourage more women into professional and technical fields and into leadership positions,” the report states.
While the McKinsey report offers some positive findings on gender equality in the workplace in China, it also recommends “reducing male-only advertised roles, addressing unequal pay between men and women, and prohibiting questions on intention to become a parent in interviews.”
“The economic dividend from advancing women’s equality is significant in every country of the region. We know that diverse workforces are good for the bottom line, and that educated, healthy, fulfilled women with the freedom to choose both a family life and a career are good for growth,” said MGI Partner Anu Madgavkar in a statement.
Last year, HRW released a report on gender inequality in employment in Iran, where women make up only 17 percent of the workforce despite comprising more than half of university graduates. In 2015, the World Economic Forum ranked Iran 141 out of 145 countries in gender equality. HRW pointed to political, cultural, and legal reasons for Iran’s failings in this area.
“Specifically, the government has created and enforced numerous discriminatory laws and regulations limiting women’s participation in the job market while also failing to stop – and sometimes actively participating in – widespread discriminatory employment practices against women in the private and public sectors,” that report states, observing that some of those rules are the result of the 1979 Islamic revolution but others date back to the 1930s.
In China, unlike Iran, much of this business conduct is technically illegal. As a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, China is obligated to eliminate all forms of discrimination. Chinese law also bans gender discrimination in hiring and discriminatory content in advertising.
In practice, though, employers face little to no consequences for blatant discrimination.
“Once a small infraction actually does get lodged, a lot of them just die on the vine or result in a sort of slap on the wrist,” Richardson said.
Current Chinese laws lack clear definitions of discrimination and effective enforcement mechanisms. Authorities rarely investigate violations proactively and penalties are often nominal.
“While there are many laws against discrimination, none of them are specific or comprehensive,” explained Liu Xiaonan, an expert at China University of Political Science and Law, in an interview with Sixth Tone earlier this year. “Rather, it’s more like a declaration within the law saying equal rights should be protected and discrimination should be prohibited — but there is no legal explanation or definition of what discrimination is in these domestic laws.”
In three recent gender-based employment discrimination lawsuits found by HRW that resulted in rulings in favor of jobseekers, the victims were each awarded only 2,000 yuan, or approximately $300. A 2012 case believed to be the country’s first ever employment gender discrimination lawsuit resulted in a settlement of 30,000 yuan, or $4,400.
“We’re talking about an environment in which the legal system is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the communist party,” Richardson said.
Further stifling action over blatantly discriminatory ads and job listings is a pattern of media censorship and hostility toward civil rights activists by the Chinese government that prevent those who are troubled by such corporate behavior from doing much about it.
“You don’t see [this kind of advertising] in countries that have clear laws on gender discrimination, functional judicial systems, and a free press,” she said.
Richardson described the prompt responses from the companies criticized in the report as “intriguing,” but she questioned the sincerity of commitments to gender equality coming from those who saw no problem with posting such ads in the first place.
“If they really believed and acted on those values, we wouldn’t have to be having this conversation at all,” she said. “Let’s hope we won’t have to have it again.”