Women in China are frequently discouraged from applying for positions—or told they have to meet exacting physical requirements to even be considered.
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“High school diploma or above, female, 18-30 years old, net height 163 cm or higher, trim figure, aesthetically pleasing,” read the advert for a clothing sales associate position in Beijing. Another job posting in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi called for “fashionable and beautiful high-speed train conductors." In the last few years, leading e-commerce site Alibaba even posted recruitment ads bragging about the "beautiful girls" and "goddesses" working at the company.
These are all part of job listings posted in the last five years by leading Chinese employers and brands on recruitment sites, company websites, and social media platforms—despite that fact that gender based employment is, technically at least, illegal in the world’s most populous nation.
According to new Human Rights Watch report 'Only Men Need Apply’: Gender Discrimination in Job Advertisements in China, gender-based discrimination in the workplace remains at endemic levels in Chinese society. Researchers analyzed over 36,000 job adverts from 2013-2017, and found that many required women to meet certain physical attributes to be considered for the role—or specified that the jobs that were for men only.
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In 2017, internet search giant Baidu advertised a position for a content reviewer. Preferred applicants must have a “strong ability to work under pressure, able to work on weekends, holidays and night shifts.” A further proviso: they needed to be male.
Government jobs weren’t exempt from discriminatory behaviors. In 2017, 13 percent of jobs posted on the national civil service job list specified male applicants. This increased to 19 percent of civil service job listings in the 2018 intake. And some of China’s biggest employers are also at fault. Alibaba—which controls over 80 percent of online commerce in China—was looking for two men to fill restaurant operations support roles as recently as January 2018.
“Although employment discrimination in China is illegal, laws are very vague and often poorly enforced,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Heather Barr tells Broadly. China’s labor law prohibits gender discrimination in employment, but it is often poorly enforced. When fines are levied by the main enforcement agencies, they can be desultorily slight.
In 2012, college graduate Guo Jing sued a Zheijiang culinary school after it advertised a male-only position. However, even though the court ruled in her favor, Jing was awarded only 2,000 yuan ($300) in damages. “If you’re a company like Ali Baba, the idea that having to pay a victim $300 is going to change your behavior is laughable, to be honest,” Barr says.
The outlook can be bleak for those trying to opposed job discrimination in China. “There’s a real crackdown in terms of women’s ability to participate in the workforce, as well as women’s rights activists in general,” Barr explains. “This creates an open space for employers to discriminate as they like.”
As a result, endemic discrimination is allowed to persist. And the problem is getting worse. China's gender pay gap is one of the worst in the world: in 2017 ranked 100th out of 144 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum, having fallen from 57th place in 2008. “Ultimately, what these laws do is reinforce the idea that some jobs are only suitable for men,” Barr concludes. “And that the job of women in the workplace is to be decorative only.”