Discrimination against women in job recruitment is widespread in China, with ads stating a preference for men and some even sexually objectifying companies’ own employees, a report released today by US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found.

Researchers analysed over 36,000 job ads posted on the websites of Chinese companies, social media platforms, job search sites, and Chinese government websites. The ads were mostly posted after 2013.

“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.

An Alibaba recruitment ad featuring ‘Goddess co-workers in the eyes of Alibaba employees’. Photo: Weibo/Reconfigured by HKFP.

“Chinese authorities need to act now to enforce existing laws to end government and private hiring practices that blatantly discriminate against women.”

Although Chinese laws prohibit gender discrimination in employment, researchers found that many recruitment ads specify that men were preferred or that only men need apply.

Some required women to have physical attributes that were irrelevant to job duties, while others used the physical attributes of female employees to attract male applicants.

For example, a job ad for train conductors in Hebei province required female applicants to be between “162 centimetres to 173 centimetres” tall, have a body weight “below 65 kilograms,” and have “normal facial features, no tattoos, no obvious scars on face, neck or arms, good skin tone, no incurable skin conditions.”

‘Men only’

Researchers also found that 19 percent of postings in the 2018 civil service job list specified “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men,” while only one posting specified a preference for women.

Photo: Pexels.

Civil service job postings frequently stated “frequent overtime working,” “heavy workload,” and “frequent travel” as reasons for excluding women, researchers said.

A posting which stated a preference for women, from the Bureau of Statistics, said: “this position requires frequent field work, long-term communication with villagers, suitable for women.”

“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,” a summary by HRW said.

It found some job ads used women’s physical attributes to attract male applicants. Often the company used their current employees. For example, a campus recruitment video posted to Baidu’s social media account in 2016 featured a male Baidu employee saying that one of the reasons that he was “so happy every day” at work was because he could “go to work with beautiful girls.”

HRW also listed how, in earlier years, Alibaba used photos of its own female employees in sexually suggestive poses in social media recruitment posts.

One post in 2013 with accompanying photos said: “They are full of personality, forthright and sincere. They like to experience new things, and follow their heart. Natural, healthy and elegant is their attitude in life. They say, ‘You want to be my coworker?’”

In response, an Alibaba spokesperson told AFP that it would conduct “stricter reviews” of recruitment ads, and those in the HRW report were outdated ads from 2012 to 2015.

HRW said Chinese laws lack a clear definition of gender discrimination and provide few effective mechanisms for enforcement. The main enforcement agencies rarely proactively investigate companies, often only ordering them to remove their ads or change them, and issuing fines only on rare occasions.

It called on the Chinese government to end gender-specific job postings for civil servants, strengthen investigation of discriminatory job ads and enact an employment anti-discrimination law.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.