The quest to end discrimination at the workplace continues despite facing several barriers
By day, Xiao Bai works as a civil servant and is the only female employee in her office. By night, she is the head of a reporting team at a nongovernmental organization handling gender discrimination reports online.
Xiao is a volunteer at NGO Inspection Squad for Workplace Gender Discrimination, a group of people trying to fight gender discrimination in China, starting from the detection of biased wording in job advertisements.
"Although we are making small progress, there is still a long way to go because gender equality is an important issue. It matters to everyone and should be heard," said Xiao Bai, who joined the group in 2018. To protect their identities, Xiao and other volunteers from the NGO have requested for their alias to be used in this article.
Based on data from the National Bureau of Statistics, women in China represent more than 43 percent of the labor force. However, a report released in March by online recruitment platform Zhaopin found that gender is still a barrier for women in employment opportunities and career development.
More than 55 percent of women surveyed in the report said they were asked about their marital status and child rearing plans during interviews－more than double the rate of their male counterparts. The easing of the country's family planning policy, which allows all couples to have two children since 2016, has also put women in an exasperating position in the labor market.
Worldwide, gender discrimination is also a major issue in several countries. According to the World Economic Forum's 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, it would take the world about 136 years to achieve gender equality. So it does not come as a surprise that realizing equality at the workplace will take nearly 268 years.
As the COVID-19 situation becomes worse, the International Labor Organization said 5 percent of all employed women have lost their jobs during the pandemic, as compared to 3.9 percent of all employed men.
Every day, Xiao spends about an hour going through several cases of gender biased employment ads, reporting them to the local authorities like women's federations or social security and labor bureaus online or through mail, and keeping track of responses from previous reports. Xiao said there is no feedback for most reports, while it takes months to get a response for some of them.
Last year, the NGO received complaints of more than 1,260 cases of advertisements with elements of gender discrimination. Of these cases, the group estimated that about 200 reports received feedback, but only a small number of the advertisements had the wording corrected after the feedback. This is a significant increase from the 477 cases reported to the group in 2018.
In the last three years, Xiao encountered various weird job requirements listed by employers that put women off from applying.
"When it comes to job listings, gender biased language such as 'men only' or 'men preferred' is quite common. Sometimes, it is not that explicit and employers set higher academic requirements for women than their male counterparts," Xiao says.
"When a college's job ad for a male staff member was reported to our group, the school refused to correct the wording on the ad and explained that because the section chief is a man, it will be more convenient to have a male assistant arrange his business trips," she said helplessly.
Another case that made Xiao's eyes wide open is a job ad recruiting "men only" patrol police without any explanation as to why this is so. When the police force was contacted regarding this issue, the reason they gave is that women are not suitable for the job as they would need to patrol on motorcycles all day and that the motorcycles will be too heavy for women.
"These explanations are ridiculous and what makes me really annoyed is that they didn't know the wording is illegal," said Xiao, adding that she just asks organizations to delete gender biased requirements in these job ads.
The NGO was founded by seven college students in 2014 to eliminate gender discrimination in recruitment and raise public awareness on the equality of opportunity. It now has more than 510,000 followers on social media platform Sina Weibo.
"Thanks to popularity on the internet, our voice to seek equality in the workplace has been heard by more people," said Xiao, adding that there are two men on her team who genuinely believe that gender equality matters.
About a dozen volunteers like Xiao have worked on these matters for more than a year, and the NGO has attracted more than 100 part-time volunteers across the country.
Traditionally male dominated sectors are not the only areas where gender discrimination is felt, but it is also increasingly encroaching traditionally female dominated industries.
In the preschool education sector, more and more kindergartens have been inviting more men to teach in the classrooms. Ministry of Education data states that about 2 percent of the 2.58 million kindergarten teachers in China were men in 2018. However, this number is set to increase in time.
In recent years, there has been proposals made during the two sessions to increase the gender ratio of kindergarten teachers, triggering discussions on whether having more male kindergarten teachers will help boys develop more masculine behaviors. Hence, some kindergartens have began including its preference for male teachers in its recruitment ads.
Ning Ning, a volunteer from the group, cannot understand the connection between education and masculinity. She is a sophomore at a college in Beijing and joined the squad last year.
"I received a case about a job ad for kindergarten teachers. It lowers the requirements for male applicants and this is gender discrimination. When I reported the ad and contacted the school, a man called back and refused to admit that it is bias," Ning said.
When she told her parents about this case, they kept quiet and said nothing.
"My mother is a kindergarten teacher, but she said nothing, which makes me upset," she added.
Though the country's job market has remained stable during the pandemic, official statistics found that female job hunters are at a disadvantage due to their gender. The Zhaopin report stated that gender discrimination is the biggest challenge women face in employment.
Nearly 60 percent of surveyed women said they were asked about their marital status in interviews, and 27 percent were rejected because of their gender. Furthermore, 6.4 percent of them said they had their positions changed or their pay reduced because they became pregnant.
A woman surnamed Huang, who is a post graduate student in international journalism and communication in Beijing, feels "terrible" about her job hunting experiences. She has not received a job offer yet.
During a group interview with a media group in the capital, Huang heard the interviewer saying "girls again". All the interviewees at the group interview were female.
She is not the only one that experienced unfair treatment during interviews. A law school undergraduate surnamed Xie from Wuhan had a similar experience when she applied for a job at an insurance company in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, where her boyfriend lives.
"During the interview, they kept asking me about my boyfriend's future plans, which made me feel offended. I was the one who applied for the job, not my boyfriend," Xie complained. "And his future plans don't equate to mine. They make me feel like my life is totally based on our relationship, which is very ridiculous."
The central government estimates that about 14 million new job seekers, including 9.09 million college graduates, will enter the job market this year. To Xu, this is an indication that the market may not be "friendly to women". This is what she has concluded after her job seeking experience in Beijing.
"During campus career talks, companies would tell us in advance that males are preferred because of night shifts, but 'men only' is not mentioned in job ads," Xu said with a sigh. She has a doctorate degree in electrical engineering.
Ren, a fine arts undergraduate student, is equally frustrated when she was looking for an internship in Beijing. She recounted of her experience applying for an internship with online streaming platform iQiyi. The process went smoothly, but she was eventually rejected. Ren said the company's human resource representative told her over the phone that "the job included many business trips and it might be difficult for women".
In the case of 30-year-old Liang, she found that age is always the main issue in her job hunt.
"It got harder and harder to find a job when I reached 28 years old. Most of the time, HR managers would ask me questions like 'are you married?' and 'do you plan to have babies?' … Don't you think that they have given women so much pressure?" Liang said. To get rid of the pressure, she has gone back to school and has been taking a master's degree in management in Spain.
In the long-term battle against gender discrimination in workplaces, the good news is that not only more people like Ning and Xiao have gotten involved, but authorities at the state and local levels are also looking into making improvements at the workplace.
China now has 339 million women who have jobs, according to statistics from the Chinese Academy of Labor and Social Security. The media and legislators also constantly discuss how women can guarantee their rights in the workplace.
The central government has enacted and implemented outlines for the development of women in the overall plans of the country's economic and social development.
The latest regulations took effect on March 1 by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, which forbid discriminatory content in online job advertisements. They stipulate that employers should not post any online recruitment advertisements that discriminate against job seekers of any nationality, race, gender or religion.
Two years before the enactment of such regulations, nine state departments, including the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the All China Women's Federation, jointly issued a notice about recruitment regulations that prohibited gender discrimination in 2019. It stipulates that employers or recruitment agencies face monetary fines if their job ads specify a requirement or preference for gender such as "men only" or "men preferred". Employers are also not allowed to ask prospective job candidates about their marital status or childbearing plans, nor are they suppose to ask candidates to take pregnancy tests as part of their medical examination.
Employers will face fines of up to 50,000 yuan ($7,680) if they are proven to have discriminated during recruitment, according to the notice.
Beijing has also banned any form of gender discrimination in hiring procedures in 2019 and encouraged employers to offer more support for female employees who have recently given birth.
In 2013, a woman surnamed Liang in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, was awarded compensation for her case over a company's discriminatory job advertisement. The company posted an apology online and paid her 601 yuan. This has been marked as one of the first gender discrimination cases nationwide that have been resolved in favor of the complainant.
As going through the courts may cost a lot of time and money, Xiao said that such discrimination cases should be solved at the administrative level before going to court as the last option.
Though gender discrimination has been banned in employment policies, Xiao believes it is quite a different picture in reality.
"When I try to report biased recruitment ads to local bureaus, some of them will say it is not their responsibility and suggest that I file a lawsuit with the local court," she said.
To solve the dilemma facing by female job seekers, Zhang Libin, director of the Chinese Academy of Labor and Social Security's employment and business startup research office, has proposed a series of actions including improving legislation to prohibit gender discrimination in employment, optimizing policies related to pregnancies, and improving training systems to help women who have difficulty finding jobs learn skills to get employment.
Thanks to social progress and women becoming increasingly educated, more and more women are focusing on their careers and becoming more recognized in the workplace. Although the salary gap between men and women has been shrinking over the past two years according to Zhaopin's annual report, the platform's CEO Guo Sheng said that women are in fewer management positions.
A report by US think tank Peterson Institute for International Economics suggests that it would require greater policy intervention to provide targeted support for women and more stringent enforcement of antidiscrimination laws.
A WEF report notes that a number of factors has driven women into further economic precarity during the pandemic, including the growing "double shift" of work and care, which has pushed women in many countries out of the workforce.
WEF Managing Director Saadia Zahidi hopes the gender report "will serve as a call to action to leaders to embed gender parity as a central goal of our policies and practices to manage the post-pandemic recovery, to the benefit of our economies and our societies."
According to UNESCO, gender equality does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they were born male or female.
And this is what Xiao hopes for. She hopes more people will join the volunteer group to help detect biased job ads, and that gender equality will begin with unbiased job ads.
"Advancing gender equality is a long-term issue and it matters to everyone," she said. "Even though our actions are small, I believe that one day we can make a difference."
Xue Mengchen contributed to the story.