When Professor Hsiu-hua Shen of National Tsing Hua University in Taipei, Taiwan, went to Beijing to conduct research on gender discrimination issues, she started hearing stories from friends looking for jobs. The women told her that they often weren’t asked to come in for interviews, or if they were, the topic would drift to their current and future children. Over and over, they encountered the assumption that they would be having children, which would distract them from the job. Companies, it turned out, were reluctant to hire—or even interview—female candidates, because of this gender discrimination.
In China, it’s difficult for women to seek protection from pregnancy discrimination or sexual harassment, Shen said.
Discrimination in the Workplace
Shen’s friends are not alone. Gender discrimination in the workplace is widespread in China, from the interview stage to potential promotions for current employees. According to a Catalyst report from 2020, 19 percent of civil service job postings noted a preference for male candidates, while other listings specified that female candidates should already have children.
In 2019, a law was passed that explicitly prohibits gender discrimination in job listings, but according to experts, it hasn’t made much of a difference.
“The job ads websites, like the equivalent of Indeed in China, have been trying to crack down on ads that say, ‘We only hire men,’ because it is against Chinese law,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch in the New York City metropolitan area. “But then you look at the case of the government’s own civil service: There are so many ads in their civil service saying ‘prefer to hire men.’ “
The law dictates a fine for companies that don’t comply, but the monetary punishment is low.
Once hired, women often face discrimination due to cultural assumptions. “[The assumption is] men are smarter, men are better at management, men are just better leaders,” Wang noted. “It’s the patriarchal society.” Sometimes companies don’t promote women because they anticipate women will take maternity leave or be distracted by children and chores at home, Wang said. “The companies start to wonder, ‘Well, you’re going to take care of two kids, right? You don’t have time for a job. I’m not sure whether you’re up to the task, so why not just promote the man?’ “
Although maternity leave is mandatory, companies try to avoid it, according to Wang. “No women should feel the need to convince companies they’re not going to have more children,” Wang said. “The companies and the society need to accommodate maternity leave.”
Wage Gap Is Improving
There is still a significant wage gap for women, though it is improving. According to the Catalyst report, women in China earned 84 percent of what men earned for similar work in 2019, which was an improvement from 2016, when women earned only 77 percent of men’s wages. Some of the wage discrepancy comes from the barriers women face in certain sectors.
“It’s really difficult for Chinese women to get into certain fields,” Shen said. Restrictions against women are allowed in some professions, including military and certain sciences, which can have long-term consequences for career development. “Usually those occupations are much higher-paid,” Shen noted.
Trying to Make Change
Allowing women to advance further in their careers will require shifts at many levels, and any initiatives must address discrimination in education, hiring processes and the domestic realm, as well as in the workplace. “How do you make sure that women get treated equally at the workplace? It’s very hard to implement,” Wang said.
Ultimately, the government itself might have the most influence to enforce prohibitions against gender discrimination—if it is willing to do so.
“You see the people talking about their experiences of job discrimination, or sexual harassment or all kinds of issues at the workplace. But how much is the government going to do?” Shen asked. “It’s really up to them.”
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.