May 02, 2018 11:54 AM

How Bad Is Sexism in the Chinese Workplace?

A recent report on sexist practices at China’s top three internet companies, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu, got me to thinking about the broader topic of sexism in today’s Chinese workplace and how the issue has changed over the years. China is quite a complex place in that regard, as it was quite the puritanical place during the socialist era, but has morphed into something quite different in the current age of market reform.

In my usual unscientific way, I polled a range of contacts to get to the bottom of this complicated matter, including both men and women working at domestic and foreign organizations. I’ll admit I went into the mission with a slight bias, expecting to find blatant examples of sexism through the workplace based on my own personal experience that may be a bit dated due to my long tenure in the region.

What I found instead was a highly nuanced situation that includes quite a wide range of behaviors. While some practices still exist in China that clearly wouldn’t be tolerated in most Western companies, such activities certainly weren’t rampant and it would be a huge overstatement to say they were pervasive throughout the Chinese workplaces of today.

One of the few generalizations that it’s still safe to make is that sexism, when it occurs, seems to be more prevalent in smaller cities than big ones like Beijing and Shanghai. Another is that certain professions where you tend to get more men than women are also more prone to sexist practices. That was certainly the case for the recent report from Human Rights Watch, which was particularly critical of the big internet companies for sexism in their hiring materials.

The report zeroed in on job advertisements and other recruiting material, criticizing the male-majority big internet firms for job ads that, for example, boasted of work environments filled with “beautiful girls” to attract male candidates. I watched one such video in the report and was surprised that it showed a female employee describing her ideal boyfriend while pole dancing. Not exactly relevant job experience, to say the least.

All three internet companies took a mature approach and didn’t deny anything. But they were quick to add that the ads weren’t representative of their core values. They also pointed out that women made up very large portions of their workforce, and Alibaba noted that six of its 18 founders and 12 of its 36 current partners are women.

Attractive People Only, Please

Perhaps all of that is true, but how does one explain such blatantly sexist ads, and are they part of a wider culture of sexism in the workplace? I have my own theories on the first question that I’ll detail shortly. The answer to the second question seems to be that sexism exists in the Chinese workplace, but it isn’t all that much worse than what you’d see in other countries, at least not in China’s big cities.

My own experience with job ads is that companies here in China do seem to put a bit more emphasis on an applicant’s appearance, especially women. It’s quite common to see ads for female employees requesting their height and a recent photo. It’s also true that women are quite underrepresented in most companies’ upper ranks here in China, though many Western companies are guilty of similar underrepresentation.

To start understanding the Chinese workplace mentality, you have to go back to the socialist era when everything was quite puritanical. While it had many less attractive attributes, one of that era’s positive elements was its relatively equal treatment of men and women. I honestly can’t imagine a #MeToo movement ever happening in the China I experienced in the 1980s, largely because the society of that time was far less sexual than today.

The pendulum swung in the opposite direction during the freewheeling 1990s, when the country was allowed to rediscover sexuality during the more open reform era. I remember going to a magazine stand during that time, and being somewhat amused and surprised to discover that a good number of titles on display were either semi- or outright pornographic, with little differentiation from the more mainstream magazines.

Skip ahead a decade or two to the present, which is something of an in-between where bits and pieces of those racy times still find their way into the evolving Chinese workplace of today.

Of the expat women I polled, none said they noticed any major sexism in their workplaces, which included a major local university, a foreign marketing firm, a local media company and a local non-government organization (NGO). Each did point out that their companies are all majority female, which leads to the conclusion that such firms are relatively free of sexism, as one might expect.

But little elements of sexism still do exist. One told me she was once told in her annual review to “be more charming” on the job. An expat man said he couldn’t remember how many times he had heard people say that certain genders are better suited to certain roles, for example, because women are less analytic or more sensitive. A Chinese contact at a major drug firm said sexism wasn’t prevalent at his company either. But he did note that younger male and female employees alike were allowed to take out visiting clients for “fun nights on the town” at their own discretion, in a veiled reference to visiting the hostess-style bars and clubs that Asia is famous for.

At the end of the day, I was quite encouraged and pleasantly surprised by how far China appears to have come in terms of equal treatment of both genders in the workplace, even if the Human Rights Watch report does show the system is far from perfect.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to

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