Career: University Lecturer | Leiden University | The Netherlands
Gender Discrimination in China's Job Market
Before graduating from Peking University, I attended a job-hunting workshop, and a piece of advice I heard from the organizer has stuck in my mind: “Finding a job in Beijing is most difficult for those graduate students who are female and who are not registered Beijing residents.” This is hardly good news for an aspiring young woman like me who, unfortunately, fits all the “negative” categories. In fact I have been struck by the fact that China’s economic miracle in recent years has generally not led to greater opportunity for women. Under the surface of an increasing female work force is a widening gender gap in income and discrimination.
For female college graduates in China, requests for information about age, residential registration and physical appearance hurt self-esteem and can have an impact on salary as well. For poorly educated, low-income women, the lack of regulation and protection in their work place can pose real dangers to their personal life. In one of the most shocking homicide cases in 2009, a 22-year-old hotel attendant killed a government official and wounded another as she defended herself against attempted rape. The two men had pressed her for sexual services despite her repeated explanation that she was not a sex worker.
A 2002 report by the World Bank on gender issues in China revealed that discrimination had become worse as China’s economy had developed. And a recent survey by Peking University’s Center for Women’s Studies and Legal Aid reveals that the situation has not improved significantly after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). According to this study, one in four women in China has encountered discrimination in job hunting: four percent were forced to sign “no-marriage” contracts and three percent “no pregnancy” contracts. One in every five people surveyed reported that their employers refused to hire women who have reached childbearing age but have not given birth to children.
For people currently holding jobs, different sectors treat men and women differently. Women hold a large proportion of the positions in education, service industries, and labor-intensive manufacturing industries, but they are only a tiny fraction of the employees in government, law, accounting and other professions.
During pregnancy, childbirth and maternal leave, 21 percent of those surveyed report that women in their work place were forced to change positions or receive lower pay, and 11 percent said that women suffer job losses during these periods. In countries like the United States, some women may interrupt their career path by having babies and raising them to school age. In China this is almost impossible because it is very difficult for a woman over 30 or 35 to re-enter the job market and resume her previous career.
Over 25 percent of the respondents in the Peking University survey said that their work place had no regulations about sexual harassment, and over 50 percent of sexual harassment was reported as occurring in work-related situations, but not necessarily in the office.
In China the retirement ages for women and men are different. For women it is 55 (50 for female factory workers) and for men, 60. According to a regulation in 2006, the longer you work, the more pension you receive. If a person is about to retire in five years, she will not be considered for promotion, and this means that women with the same education as men will receive fewer benefits and fewer opportunities for promotion in their lifetime. Despite all these forms of gender discrimination, only a small number of women choose to file lawsuits against employers.
Does all this have serious consequences? Yes, of course. First, although it is true that more women now have the chance to receive a college education, the result is that colleges are turning out more female graduates than the unbalanced job market can absorb. The tremendous challenges of starting a career produce many disillusioned young women. Nowadays, being “second wife” or “mistress” to a wealthy man is becoming a “profession” for pretty girls with college diplomas. Chinese society’s reaction is to criticize women for their moral degradation — a form of further condemnation that does not get to the root of the issue. This also results in brain drain, as many talented Chinese women choose to go abroad, where they expect to find greater social tolerance for individual choices and better regulation of the job market.
How can these problems be addressed? The Chinese government needs to be more effective in its legislative efforts to protect women’s rights, and it should invest more to subsidize the hiring of women.
While China has not had any massive self-organized women’s rights movement in its history, social workers and NGOs should help raise women’s consciousness to defend their rights and fight against discrimination. In reality, this is a global issue that requires support from the international community.
China’s manufacturing sector, which absorbs the largest number of female workers in the country, supports the world with women’s cheap labor. Looking at the clothes we wear and the goods we purchase, shouldn’t we share some responsibilities of improving those women’s conditions?