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2018-09-21 10:18:28 Commentary

In his office before the big dinner, Team Leader Wu reiterated his expectations for us that night: “Drink with the leaders, and be sure to keep them entertained.”

2017 was coming to a close, which meant it was time for our department’s annual year-end banquet. In preparation for the evening’s festivities, my coworkers passed around medicine to bolster their livers and stuffed themselves with fruit to pad their stomachs.

Wu — all names have been changed to protect the anonymity of those involved — had only just been made a manager at the bank where I work, which is located in a large city in southwestern China. In his mid-30s, he was under immense pressure and desperate for the year-end party to go well. He had invited a number of the bank’s senior leaders, and to entertain them, he had us preorder roast mutton and reserve rooms for post-dinner karaoke. But as we would find out that night, this was all a façade: What he really needed to successfully win their favor was to provide them with female companionship.

When my colleagues and I arrived at the restaurant, we were led to a small private room with two round tables. No one sat down. It is common courtesy in China for employees to wait until the leaders have arrived and selected their tables before sitting down themselves. Finally, they arrived, one after the other, and sat down at one of the tables.

Once everyone was there, General Manager Wang took charge. Instead of having all the non-managers sit at the other table, he arranged for three of my colleagues, Chenchen, Jinna, and Wenyu — known as the department’s “three beauties” — to sit with him and the other leaders at their table.

“Space yourselves out,” Wang reminded them. I was placed next to the general manager himself, perhaps because they considered my overseas background prestigious.

As dish after dish of roast mutton was set on the table, we began toasting our bosses one by one. I watched as Wu snagged large chunks of meat with his chopsticks and deferentially placed one in each leader’s bowl before he ate. It was a conspicuous and clumsy attempt at flattery, but everyone pretended not to notice. As the night wore on and the drinks kept flowing, Wenyu — who was seated on the other side of Wang — grew tipsy and increasingly flirty. Watching her, I smiled inwardly at my own lack of networking skills.

Over the course of the evening, not one single man said anything about the way we were treated.

Halfway through the dinner, we were joined by Bank President Dai, who had rushed over from a family dinner to join us. Dai mentioned that his daughter was studying in Boston, and Wu was quick to point out that I had gone to Boston University. I might have interpreted this as a boss merely looking out for a junior employee by helping them make a useful professional connection, had he not used the university’s Chinese nickname, Boda — the equivalent of saying BU in English — which in Chinese is pronounced the same as the word for “big boobs.” He made sure to emphasize it, too, in case anyone at the table had failed to grasp his wit. The men at the table laughed; I tried not to roll my eyes. Wu often made comments like that, perhaps because he thought they lightened the mood.

One of the leaders, Supervisor Liu, took a keen interest in both me and Chenchen. He kept repeatedly saying that the two of us were the very backbone of the bank. Supervisor Liu looked to be about the same age as my father. As with Wu’s earlier comment, his words in another context might have come off as encouraging. It was tough to feel appreciated, however, watching him drunkenly throw his arm around Chenchen and try to pull her away from the group as we headed over to the karaoke parlor.

I tried to wait for them, but Wu spotted me and made me show President Dai upstairs, despite my protests. In that moment I felt helpless and unable to refuse. I regret it, but I left Chenchen behind to deal with Supervisor Liu alone.

Some time passed before the pair of them joined us — Chenchen later told me that she had managed to convince Liu to go upstairs without further incident; there had only been drunken chitchat. Shortly after the two of them arrived at the karaoke room we had reserved, Supervisor Liu decided to try a different tactic. He sauntered to the center of the room and started to dance. One by one, he pulled the women in the room over to join him. The more experienced among us — including Jinna and myself — knew how to quickly extricate ourselves from his grasp, but the younger interns were forced to put up with his wandering hands until they could escape — or until he picked a new target.

Over the course of the evening, not one single man said anything about the way we were treated. They just continued drinking and chatting and playing games among themselves as though nothing was amiss. Wu never even entered the room. According to Chenchen, he just sat on the couch in the hall of the karaoke parlor the whole night, seemingly sober — an odd choice for someone apparently interested in networking. After one particularly aggressive entreaty by Supervisor Liu, Jinna and another of our coworkers helped sneak Chenchen out of the room and away from him. Once in the hall, Jinna began cursing Liu for being an “old pervert,” but Wu didn’t seem to notice.

Three weeks later, at a department lunch, Wu suddenly brought the events of that night back up. He explained to us that he was furious with how we were treated while we sat there and listened to his self-pitying rationalizations. “I was drunk,” he told us, though many of the people who were there that night remembered him being sober. “And I wasn’t in the room. And anyway, even if I was in the room, I probably couldn’t have stopped anything.”

About a month later, however, Wu pressured the “three beauties” into another nighttime department karaoke activity. Both General Manager Wang and Supervisor Liu were once again in attendance. That time, General Manager Wang specifically arranged for Chenchen and Jinna to sit on either side of Supervisor Liu, and dropped a not-so-subtle hint about the stakes of the evening by casually telling them that their performance reviews still hadn’t been approved. The women on our team concluded that Wu saw us as nothing more than pawns, to be sacrificed for his own professional advancement.

My story is not atypical, nor is this behavior an industry secret. It is the reality of life for female bank employees around China. It is not uncommon for us to be forced to “play hostess,” and women are frequently subjected to verbal or physical sexual harassment in bank offices. These problems are compounded by the rigid hierarchies found in the banking industry, in which bosses wield near-absolute power over their subordinates.

Gender and power dynamics mirror each other in this industry. Women account for the majority of entry level bank staff, and are often recruited for their looks as much as for their qualifications. Meanwhile, men fill the majority of management positions. Most of my female coworkers, though disgusted by their bosses’ behavior, feel they have no choice but to put up with it. With no anonymous reporting mechanisms, no useful laws protecting whistleblowers, nor anyone interested in enforcing the few policies that do exist, raising objections is a quick way to get labeled a “problem employee.”

This culture of silence has led to a situation in which drinking with or getting groped by your boss is just a part of life for female bank employees. There are even those who embrace it, hamming it up at dinners and boozy karaoke nights to further their careers. Those who refuse to go along are labeled, like I was, as “unable to take a joke,” “arrogant,” or “uptight.”

Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. Bank jobs are hard to come by, and they offer good pay and good benefits. Many parents — including my own — are unaware of the extent of the harassment, and want desperately for their children to find a job in the industry. This makes quitting hard. As does the fact that the city in which I live, while large, is not a banking hub. Anyone who objects to being treated as a sex object by their bosses runs the risk of reprisals, ranging from delayed or denied promotions to smear campaigns in our city’s small banking circles.

The kind of persistent, relatively low-level harassment my coworkers and I are routinely subjected to may seem minor compared to some of the stories of sexual assault that have come out in recent months, but the root problem is the same: a lack of regulation and enforcement, and society’s unwillingness to openly deal with this culture of harassment.

If this is ever going to change, Chinese media must be allowed to talk about the issue of workplace harassment and shine a light on serial harassers in leadership positions. Stories such as mine are difficult to tell, and it is sometimes hard to accept what these tales say about the people we work with, but it’s the first step toward creating a workplace that is safe and healthy for men and women alike.

Translator: Matt Turner; Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: VCG)