Seven top women lawyers have called on China's Supreme People's Court in Beijing to set up a women's rights tribunal to handle a huge backlog of legal challenges linked to workplace discrimination, a non-government group said on Friday.
Lawyers say women are suing potential employers in such large numbers that national courts lack capacity to handle all the cases.
The July 10 letter called for a tribunal to handle cases of discrimination against women, Beijing-based health and rights advocacy group Yirenping said in a statement.
The move comes after a similar tribunal was set up by the Beijing Municipal High Court and the All China Women's Federation (ACWF), which is run by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The letter cites the case of a Beijing university student who sued a college for discriminating against women in a recruitment advertisement, in a flagrant breach of anti-discrimination laws.
"One year on, the case has yet to be accepted by a court," the letter said.
While Mao Zedong's phrase "Women hold up half the sky" still makes an obligatory appearance in state media stories on International Women's Day, Chinese women seeking work say the situation on the ground is truly grim.
Rights groups say 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.
Hebei-based lawyer Lin Yang said Chinese women face serious discrimination in the job market, at a time when graduate unemployment is at its highest in decades.
"There is a legal basis for these demands in China's Labor Law, Labor Contract Law and the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights, all of which protect women looking for work," Lin said.
China's universities will produce nearly seven million Chinese graduates this year, more than in any other year in history, flooding the labor market at a time of global recession.
A 2011 survey by the ACWF found that 60 percent of Chinese women graduates reported they had experienced "fewer opportunities" in the job market, while 90 percent reported experiencing gender bias in the hiring policies of companies and institutions.
Guo Li, a professor at the prestigious Zhongshan University in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, said women were the hardest hit by graduate unemployment.
"There are so many people at university, and a shortage of jobs for them," Guo said. "In a situation where supply is greater than demand, employers tend to favor male recruits."
"This is [now] very serious, although it has actually existed all along."
Guo said employers saw women as more problematic because they were seen as being more likely to take expensive maternity leave 2-3 years after being hired.
"That is when they are becoming experienced workers, as opposed to rookies, so they think that this will affect the whole workforce, so they are determined only to hire men," she said.
Official figures show that only 30-40 percent of graduates in major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou typically sign employment contracts after graduating, but the proportions are far lower among female graduates.
The lawyers pointed to two highly publicized cases of suicide among recent female graduates unable to find work.
'Too many cases to count'
Lin said it wasn't only cost-conscious private sector employers who preferred to hire men, however.
"The problem is the same in state-owned enterprises," he said. "There are too many cases to count."
He said the boom in gender discrimination cases had given the judicial authorities considerable worry.
"There aren't enough courts to hear all these cases," Lin said.
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 March, a number of Chinese cities including Nanchang, Suzhou, Zhengzhou, Chengdu, Kunming and Changchun hosted all-female recruitment fairs, in a bid to boost employment rates among women, while companies in Shenyang pledge to earmark more than 1,000 industrial jobs for women.
But lawyers have hit out at such fairs as largely cosmetic exercises.
Women say job advertisements often specify age and appearance for typically female roles, or simply advertise outright for male candidates.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.