(Hong Kong) – China’s government and private Chinese companies should end their widespread use of gender discriminatory job advertisements, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. Chinese authorities rarely enforce legal prohibitions against gender discrimination in employment and in advertising.
“Nearly one in five job ads for China’s 2018 national civil service called for ‘men only’ or ‘men preferred,’ while major companies like Alibaba have published recruitment ads promising applicants ‘beautiful girls’ as co-workers,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese authorities need to act now to enforce existing laws to end government and private hiring practices that blatantly discriminate against women.”
The 99-page report, “‘Only Men Need Apply’: Gender Discrimination in Job Advertisements in China,” analyzed over 36,000 job advertisements posted between 2013 and 2018 on Chinese recruitment and company websites and on social media platforms. Many of the ads specify a requirement or preference for men. Some job posts require women to have certain physical attributes – with respect to height, weight, voice, or facial appearance – that are irrelevant to job duties. Others use the physical attributes of companies’ current female employees to attract male applicants.
Human Rights Watch found that in the 2017 Chinese national civil service job list, 13 percent of the job postings specified “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.” For example, a posting for a position at the Ministry of Public Security news department read, “need to work overtime frequently, high intensity work, only men need apply.” In the 2018 national civil service job list, 19 percent specified a requirement or preference for men. In contrast, none specified “women only,” “women preferred,” or “suitable for women” in the 2017 list and only one specified a preference for women in the 2018 list.
Private Chinese companies, including some technology giants, have also used gender-specific ads. For instance, search engine giant Baidu advertised a job in March 2017 for content reviewers stipulating that applicants must be “men,” and have “strong ability to work under pressure, able to work on weekends, holidays and night shifts.” E-commerce conglomerate Alibaba in a January 2018 job ad stated “men preferred” for two “restaurant operations support specialist” positions.
Beyond unlawfully depriving women of job opportunities, these job ads reflect deeply discriminatory views about women: that they are less intellectually, physically, and psychologically capable than men, or that they are not fully committed to their jobs because some will eventually leave their positions to have a family.
Sexual objectification of women is also common in job advertising in China. Many ads specify irrelevant physical requirements. For instance, an ad posted on the job search website Zhilian Zhaopin for clothing sales associates in Beijing read, “high school diploma or above, female, 18-30 years old, net height 163 cm or higher, trim figure, aesthetically pleasing.” An ad for train conductors in Shaanxi province had the job titled “fashionable and beautiful high-speed train conductors.”
Some job ads use the physical attributes of women – often the company’s current employees – to attract male applicants. In recent years, Alibaba has repeatedly published recruitment ads boasting that there are “beautiful girls” or “goddesses” working for the company. In an October 2016 article published on tech company Tencent’s official recruitment WeChat account, a male employee was quoted saying, “The reason I joined Tencent originated from a primal impulse. It was mainly because the ladies at human resources and that interviewed me were very pretty.”
“Sexist job ads pander to the antiquated stereotypes that persist within Chinese companies,” Richardson said. “These companies pride themselves on being forces of modernity and progress, yet they fall back on such recruitment strategies, which shows how deeply entrenched discrimination against women remains in China.”
China’s Labor Law and other laws and regulations prohibit gender discrimination in employment, and the Advertising Law bans gender discrimination in advertising. However, the laws lack a clear definition of what constitutes gender discrimination and provide few effective enforcement mechanisms. The main enforcement agencies – local bureaus of human resources and social security and bureaus of industry and commerce – rarely proactively investigate companies that violate relevant laws, and their responses to complaints filed by women’s rights activists are irregular and inconsistent. Often, the bureaus only ordered companies publishing gender discriminatory ads to remove or change the ads. On rare occasions, companies were fined.
Several women in recent years have brought successful court challenges to gender discrimination in job ads, but the compensation imposed on violators was low. In 2013, college graduate Guo Jing sued a culinary school in Zhejiang province that published an ad for a male-only clerk position. The court ruled that the school violated Guo’s rights to equal employment and ordered it to pay Guo 2,000 yuan (US$300) in damages. This is believed to be the first time a job seeker won a gender discrimination case.
The Chinese government’s deep hostility toward rights activism and restrictions on freedom of expression have seriously hindered efforts by women’s rights activists against gender discrimination in employment. Prominent women’s rights activists have faced police harassment, intimidation, and forced eviction in recent years. Social media accounts that advocate for women’s rights have been repeatedly muzzled.
“Instead of harassing and jailing women’s rights activists, the Chinese government should engage them as allies in combating gender discrimination in the job market – and beyond,” Richardson said.