Chinese Women Still Face Blatant Workplace Bias

2013-03-08
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A woman prepares her CV at a job fair in Shanghai, Nov. 6, 2012.
ImagineChina

Workplace discrimination against Chinese women is still rife, in spite of a slew of positive women-in-work news stories published in the country's tightly controlled official media for International Women's Day, experts said on Friday.

"Discrimination against women in China is extremely common," said Li Qiang, who heads the U.S.-based rights group China Labor Watch. "There is a lack of law enforcement measures taken to protect equality in women's employment."

He said that while Chinese women enjoy labor law protection on paper, such rules are frequently flouted by companies seeking to minimize the cost of maternity leave and other family-linked benefits.

Mao Zedong's phrase, "Women hold up half the sky" made its obligatory appearance in at least two stories from Xinhua news agency, the official news outlet of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, on Friday.

The China News Service website reported on initiatives by a number of Chinese cities to redress workplace discrimination by holding women-only recruitment fairs, while a number of state-run papers gave top billing to a survey showing that the proportion of women in senior management posts in China rose to 51 percent from 25 percent in 2012.

Few lawsuits

While China's most powerful women seem to be doing well in the boardroom, far above the global average of 21 percent representation, the picture for middle- and working-class women is far less rosy.

"In the U.S., if a company discriminates against women, it will likely face a lawsuit," Li said. "But in China, the rules on compensation in such cases are unclear, and the punishments are light."

He said the Party-backed All China Women's Federation had limited scope to act on behalf of women, because it was run by the government.

In the absence of strong legal backing and the high personal costs associated with official complaints, many Chinese women who experience discrimination in the workplace choose to avoid a lawsuit, Li added.

"Under such circumstances, there is no need for companies to invest in ensuring they comply with the law," he said.

"They frequently advertise for staff in terms that are clearly discriminatory."

Women-only job fairs

Nanchang, Suzhou, Zhengzhou, Chengdu, Kunming and Changchun are among the cities hosting all-female recruitment fairs, in a bid to boost employment rates among women, the official China News Service reported on Thursday.

Companies in Shenyang will be offering more than 1,000 industrial jobs for women, the website said.

Shenyang lawyer Ding Xiaoji said the fairs were largely cosmetic exercises, however.

"They just put them on for the festival, to look as if they're looking out for women and giving them some opportunities," Ding said.

"I think the issue of women landing jobs is a year-round problem, and can't be solved by an annual activity."

Avoiding maternity leave costs

A number of the companies taking part in the Shenyang fair specified that applicants should already be married, and that women with children would be given priority.

Ding said this had more to do with cutting costs associated with maternity leave than with offering opportunities to mothers.

"If they specify that their staff should be married with kids, then they won't be claiming marriage or maternity leave," she said. "This is in the interest of the companies."

She said such advertising wouldn't be tolerated in the United States, so as to preserve as much as possible equality of opportunity among applicants.

"At the very least, it prevents this sort of blatant discrimination," Ding said.

Age and appearance requirements

A Beijing resident surnamed Song said there were often extra requirements placed on female applicants for job openings in China.

"In particular, age and appearance are an invisible way of raising the bar for women," Song said. "Some of the requirements are quite unreasonable, although some companies also extend them to men as well."

She said huge competition for white-collar jobs had encourage companies to think up new ways of picking the best candidates.

"If there are 10 candidates for a job who all have good points, then they are going to pick the one with the best image, because that's good for when they go on business trips," Song said.

"But of course discrimination is far more serious if you're a woman."

Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.