Rampant sexist job ads in China ‘do not reflect our values,’ say apologetic tech companies

Society & Culture

On April 23, Human Rights Watch released a bombshell report exposing widespread sexism in job ads from nearly all of China’s largest tech companies, including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Huawei. It’s not just tech: Ads for teachers and delivery people and even the government’s own 2018 national civil service exam were found to advertise jobs with the words “men preferred” or “suitable for men.” Not only this — many ads use images of attractive women “colleagues” as hiring inducements, and companies often have beauty “standards” for female hires.

All of this is illegal in China. The country has strict labor laws in general, including for gender neutrality in job advertisements, but most such laws are notoriously unenforced.

“Chinese authorities need to act now to enforce existing laws to end government and private hiring practices that blatantly discriminate against women,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a press release for the report. The report itself states, “The laws lack a clear definition of what constitutes gender discrimination and provide few effective enforcement mechanisms.”

China’s large tech companies expressed boilerplate contrition. As the BBC reports:

  • Alibaba said it would “conduct stricter reviews,” and argued that its “track record of not just hiring but promoting women in leadership positions speaks for itself.”
  • Tencent told the BBC that the sexist ads “do not reflect our values,” and that the company is “sorry they occurred and we will take swift action to ensure they do not happen again.”
  • A spokesperson for Baidu said, “We…deeply regret the instances where our job postings did not align with Baidu’s values” (the company further insisted to Bloomberg that such instances were “isolated”).
  • Huawei said it would review the allegations and ensure that its job ads were “fully sensitive of gender equality.”

HRW claims that gender discrimination in hiring is “one important reason” that female participation and pay relative to men in the workforce is shrinking in China since its peak about a decade ago. Every year since 2008, the World Economic Forum has downgraded China’s rank for gender parity, HRW notes.

The HRW report was based on analysis of “over 36,000 job advertisements posted between 2013 and 2018 on Chinese recruitment and company websites and on social media platforms.” Beyond the identification of thousands of “men only” or “men preferred” listings in various sectors, the report revealed other aspects of subtle — or not-so-subtle — gender bias in job recruitment:

  • Every job a beauty contest: “Some job postings require women to have certain physical attributes — with respect to height, weight, voice, or facial appearance — that are completely irrelevant to the execution of job duties.”
  • “Late-night benefits” from female staff: “In recent years China’s biggest technology companies, such as Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba, have repeatedly published recruitment ads boasting that there are ‘beautiful girls’ (美女 měinǚ) or ‘goddesses’ (女神 nǚshén) working for the companies… Alibaba’s recruitment social media account posted at midnight a series of photos of several young female employees and described them as ‘late-night benefits.’”
  • One disturbing recruitment video that ecommerce giant Alibaba released in 2012 featured a female pole dancer and a montage of female employees exclaiming, “I love tech boys!”

The report’s authors elaborated that the ads “reflect traditional and deeply discriminatory views: that women are less physically, intellectually, and psychologically capable than men; that women are their families’ primary sources of child care and thus unable to be fully committed to their jobs or will eventually leave full-time paid employment to have a family; and that accommodating maternity leave is unacceptably inconvenient or costly for the company or agency.”

But how likely is it that companies will change, particularly in the bro culture of the Chinese tech world? Lijia Zhang, a former factory worker in China, says in a New York Times video op-ed that companies such as Alibaba regularly advertise themselves as progressive and open to women to the outside world, but do little to change hiring practices at home. She points out that such massive companies have a perfect opportunity to be leaders in gender equality, not just technology.

It’s the least they can do. Here’s to hoping that reports like this one can raise awareness and lead to better compliance with gender equality laws, so that China can finally move positively, once again, toward gender parity.