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“Gender discrimination is widespread, Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times. “Only a few women dare to sue employers for unfair hiring practices, dismissal on grounds of pregnancy or maternity leave, or sexual harassment, experts say. Employers commonly specify gender, age and physical appearance in job offers. There are gaps in the law. A major problem, said Feng Yuan (not related to Angel Feng), is that it does not define gender discrimination. The law also sticks to the longstanding requirement that women retire five years earlier than men at the same jobs, thereby reducing earnings and pensions.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, November 25 2010]

Highly qualified candidates such as Angel Feng struggle to find jobs. Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “Fluent in Chinese, English, French and Japanese, the 26-year-old graduate of a business school in France interviewed between January and April with half a dozen companies in Beijing, hoping for her first job in the private sector, where salaries are highest. “The boss would ask several questions about my qualifications, then he’d say: “I see you just got married. When will you have a baby?” It was always the last question. I’d say not for five years, at least, but they didn’t believe me,” Ms. Feng said. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, November 25 2010]

“The main issue we face is confusion, about who we are and what we should be,” Qin Liwen, a magazine columnist, told the New York Times. “Should I be a ‘strong woman’ and make money and have a career, maybe grow rich, but risk not finding a husband or having a child? Or should I marry and be a stay-at-home housewife, support my husband and educate my child? Or, should I be a “fox” — the kind of woman who marries a rich man, drives around in a BMW but has to put up with his concubines?”

Lack of Opportunities for Women in China

Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times, “As China has shifted to a market economy, admiring reports of “wonder women,” often promulgated by state media, suggest that Chinese women have made it in business. But the economic boom that has created opportunities for women has also fostered a resurgence of long-repressed traditional values. More and more men and women say a woman’s place is in the home, wealthy men take mistresses in a contemporary reprise of the concubine system, and pressure for women to marry young is intense. In the office, Socialist-era egalitarianism has been replaced by open sexism, in some cases reinforced by the law. “The media has been publicizing individual cases of successful women, but over all there isn’t space for women to develop in the economic realm,” said Feng Yuan, a prominent Chinese feminist. “Women’s status has not improved, and in some areas has regressed.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 20, 2015 /^]

“Companies need not bother with subtlety in job advertisements. A maker of security cameras seeks sales managers: No women need apply. A company that sells box cutters is looking for a human resources manager: male, age 25 to 35. In some cases, the law itself buttresses discrimination. Legally, women must retire earlier than men — generally age 60 for men and 50 or 55 for women — as they are expected to care for the young, the sick and the old.

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Although Chinese businesses remain strongly male dominated — in the World Economic Forum's 2011 Gender Gap report, China ranked 61, way behind the U.S. (17) and Iceland (1) but ahead of Italy (74) — advertising is among the sectors in China in which women have made bigger strides. Martin Murphy, managing director of global brand management for Ogilvy & Mather's Shanghai branch, noted that his office is headed by a woman. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, October 28, 2012]

Looks Discrimination in China

Looks-based discrimination that affects hits women harder than men is said to be widespread in China. One Shanghai cosmetic surgery hospital estimated last year that half its customers were undergoing operations for career-related reasons. Most of those were women. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 28 2010]

Lu Ying, former director of the Gender center at Sun Yat-sen University, told The Guardian it was common for employers to pick out female candidates because they were prettier. "The effect of looks discrimination is much bigger for women than men. What makes it worse is that for women, the job opportunities are less than for men already," she said. "It is a very bad phenomenon. It is much worse when a government body does this because it will set a terrible example."

"Flower vases" is a Chinese idiom for women who are decorative but of little use. For a time the Hunan provincial government required women civil servants to have "symmetrical breasts." The requirement was dropped in 2004 after it was widely ridiculed.

Economists have noted the "beauty premium" in many places, but employment experts say it flourishes in China thanks to inadequate laws. A current advert for a sales assistant at the Zhengzhou Electric Bike Company requires a candidate with "a smile to topple the city" and even stipulates her vital statistics: 36-22.5-36.

Li Fangping, a lawyer who has handled many job discrimination cases, said: "In the current employment law it only says that opportunities should be open and equal to everyone. It does not directly point out that employers should not include criteria such as looks and height—it is too general to be implemented."

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Women and Discrimination in the Workplace in China

Women have often been the first to be laid off as state-owned enterprises have down-sized and become more efficient. Millions of women have lost their job. One study showed that while women make up 40 percent of the factory work force they account for 60 percent of the laid off workers.

Tall, attractive women tend to have more doors open for them than short, ugly ones. Some companies are quite open about the fact they want good-looking women to work for them. One electronic good promoter in Nanjing worked out a pay scale based on looks with girls ranking 10 on the scale getting a monthly base pay of 5000 yuan plus generous commissions while those at the bottom of the scale were paid only 1400 yuan as their base with lower commissions. An advertising firm, also in Nanjing, promised a salary of 100,000 yuan to “beautiful” female reporters.

Women are more likely to get lower-level jobs and be unemployed than men. The unemployment rate for women in 2000 was 13 percent compared to 6.4 for men.

Middle aged women are routinely pushed out to make way for cheaper, younger women. In many places young single women are not allowed to live in their own apartments there are expected to live in dormitories with other young single women.

Sexual Harassment in China

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Sunflower Women Workers Center, a nonprofit in the southern city of Guangzhou, found in a fall survey of female factory employees that 70 percent of respondents said they had been sexually harassed at work and that more than 15 percent had quit jobs because of harassment. None had sought help from a trade union or women's group. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2014]

A national survey of 8,000 women, carried out in the mid 2000s by and Chat magazine, found 79 percent of female respondents had experienced sexual harassment - compared to 22 percent of men. Meanwhile, 40 percent of women working for private or foreign firms had been targets of harassment compared to 18 percent of those in state-owned companies, a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found. [Source: Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, BBC, August 28, 2005]

It wasn’t until 2005 that China finally outlawed sexual harassment and established gender equality as a national policy. The BBC reported: “The amendment was passed by the top lawmaking body, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. Women will now be able to take legal action against abusive husbands and those who harass them. As well as banning harassment, the new law calls on all companies and government agencies to take steps to prevent the occurrence of such cases. Under the amended law, "gender equality is designated as one of the country's basic national policies", China's official Xinhua news agency reports.”

Men-Only Ads and Job Discrimination Against Women in China

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Beijing's Working Committee on Women and Children, a government panel, reported in a 2011 study that more than 61 percent of women said they suffered discrimination in the job search process. Hurdles faced by women in China's employment market, even for government jobs, might come as a surprise to foreigners. Female applicants are often asked whether they have a boyfriend or plan to have a baby soon. Female university graduates taking the nation's civil service exam are questioned about the details of their menstrual cycles, including the age when they got their first period. "What does it have to do with work?" one woman complained in an interview with the state-run publication China Youth Daily. "Do they think someone whose period starts on the first is more capable for this job than someone whose period starts on the 10th?" [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2014 ||||]

“A 2012 study on gender discrimination in employment ads in China looked at more than 1 million online postings and found that more than 10 percent expressed a preference for male or female applicants. Ads seeking men were more likely to request older, experienced workers, and ads seeking women frequently specified tall, attractive applicants no older than 25, researchers Peter Kuhn of UC Santa Barbara and Kailing Shen of Xiamen University said. Last winter, a group of women in eight cities complained about such sex-specific ads posted by 267 employers on a popular job website called Zhaopin. The website quickly removed all the postings.” ||||

Challenging Job Discrimination Against Women in China

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “China's constitution says all citizens are equal, and the country has laws barring employment discrimination on the basis of gender. In practice, though, regulations are often flouted, enforcement by regulators is lax, and until now courts have been unwilling to take up workplace gender bias cases. But” some “young women like them have started pushing back, challenging blatant discrimination and demanding action from companies, government officials and courts. They are increasingly organizing through nonprofits, professional associations and educational networks; Beijing recently even got its own chapter of the Lean In organization, inspired by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2014 ||||]

"A lot of women are now taking a tougher stand; they are no longer willing to tolerate routine abuses and discrimination that have been going on for decades in the workplace," said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group. "Increasingly, they're backed by civil society organizations … not only to file legal proceedings but to do publicity and use social media and traditional media to publicize the individual cases and the wider issues they address." ||||

Many women still feel uncomfortable raising their voices individually about discrimination and say they don't know where to turn for support. In a survey last fall of more than 400 women, Lean In Beijing found that 44 percent had experienced gender discrimination on the job and that 91 percent had never heard of an organization devoted to women's professional development. But Huang Yizhi, a female attorney, said she sees hopeful signs. After taking on” a high profile “case in the summer of 2012 and running into multiple hurdles trying to get the lawsuit to be accepted by a court in Beijing, publicity about her experience prompted an outpouring of support and action. ||||

“A group of young women staged a song-and-dance protest in front of Juren Academy. Later, a woman in Guangzhou, having read about Cao's battle, complained about other discriminatory employment ads to the city's labor bureau, Huang said, and won an apology and token damages. Seeking redress for her client, Huang filed complaints with the labor bureau and court authorities. Groups of female students and lawyers sent letters to the court and local government bodies, urging action. ||||

Important Case for Women’s Rights in China

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Fresh out of college and facing a mountain of debt, the 21-year-old woman was searching online for jobs when she hit upon a listing that sounded perfect: administrative assistant at a tutoring school in Beijing. She sent in her resume, then reread the ad and noticed that only men were asked to apply for the position. "I got no response, so I called and asked: If I'm qualified but I'm not male, will I still be considered? The woman who answered said if the ad says men only, it's men only," she recalled. "I really wanted the job. It was already July, past the peak job-finding season, and I had loans to pay." Through a nonprofit social justice and public health group, she connected with a lawyer and, after a battle lasting more than a year and a half, won China's first gender employment discrimination case. In December, Juren Academy's principal apologized in court for the men-only ad, and the school agreed to pay about $5,000 in compensation to the woman, who adopted the pseudonym Cao Ju during the high-profile proceedings to shield herself from possible negative fallout. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2014 ||||]

In August 2013, Huang Yizhi, Cao’s 28-year-old attorney “received word that the court would hear the case. She and Cao submitted their evidence, including an incriminating recording of Cao's conversation with Juren Academy staff about the men-only ad. On the day of the trial, Dec. 18, Cao recalled, she was nervous. "I had never been to a court before. I was looking forward to it, but I didn't know what was going to happen." She was shocked to find that dozens of female college students were in attendance to show their support, cramming two and three to a seat. ||||

“Even more surprising? When the proceedings started, the principal of Juren did not contest Huang and Cao's complaint but immediately apologized. When the academy's lawyer offered $500 in compensation — as opposed to the $8,300 Huang and Cao had asked for — the principal cut him off and offered $5,000, which the women accepted. "We didn't expect the result to be so positive," Huang said. The principal suggested that she use the money to fund outreach and education on women's employment rights. Cao says she'd like to, but isn't quite sure how to go about it yet. She is now working for an education consulting company. ||||

“Despite her legal victory, she's been keeping a low profile. She still uses the pseudonym and does not allow her full face to be photographed by the news media, in part because she fears she might have trouble getting a job in the future if employers regard her as a troublemaker. She has never even told her parents, who are farmers in Shanxi province southwest of Beijing, that she was the plaintiff in the case, and only one of her friends knows. "I didn't want to make my friends or family anxious. I felt uneasy myself dealing with courts and judges, and I didn't want them to feel this too," she said. "This court case has been a channel for me to deal with my anger about the discrimination, but it's risky and I need to keep my privacy." ||||

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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