“The only job they want a woman for this year is ‘wife.’”
The above exasperated reply was written by a user of the popular question-and-answer site Zhihu. The query that set them off is a common one: “When government organizations hire civil servants, do they prefer men or women?”
Short of the gaokao college-entrance exam, China’s annual civil service exam might be the most competitive test in the country. In 2018, there were an average of 63 applicants for each open post. But for many women, the test is just the first hurdle, as a number of open jobs come with requirements that go beyond the usual questions about major, educational level, and work experience. “Men only,” some read; “better suited to men,” others state. This year, my team and I found that, of the 5,776 non-tax bureau positions recruiting new candidates, 35% of open jobs expressed a preference for male candidates. Just 5% expressed a similar preference for female candidates. (Intriguingly, postings for jobs with the tax authorities prefer men and women at almost exactly the same rate.)
Law Enforcement, Firefighting Brigades Continue to Prefer Men
Unsurprisingly, the positions most likely to favor male candidates over female ones are concentrated in fields stereotypically associated with men, such as firefighting, public security, or jobs in far-flung or remote locales. Often, these stereotypes are deeply entrenched. In the words of one netizen defending biased hiring practices, “Police sometimes have to work day and night for weeks at a time, with only enough time for short naps.”
“Female officers can’t always handle it,” they added. “Especially after they have kids.”
But just because a department is traditionally seen as physically demanding, doesn’t mean that’s true of every job within that department. Police departments need clerks, technical support staff, and other workers, too.
In a 2017 essay published by the Anti-Discrimination Law Review, the lawyer Huang Yizhi argues that if recruiters accept these stereotypes to disqualify female candidates, they are tacitly labeling them “soft.” This, she writes, ignores the diversity of female body types and preferences, restricting their career options in the name of “protecting them.”
“Whether a given position is safe, or whether a woman needs protection, that should be for the woman herself to decide,” anti-discrimination activist Xiao Yao — a pseudonym — told me in an interview. Xiao volunteers with the nonprofit Employment Discrimination Monitoring Brigade, which has almost 500,000 followers on microblogging platform Weibo. “If you won’t even let women compete (for these jobs), you can’t call that protection, only restriction,” Xiao added.
He Xia, a professor of law at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, would seem to agree. “Everyone is different,” she told media outlet Jiemian in 2017. “You can’t extrapolate supposed group traits onto an individual, then use these traits to exclude them. Not every man wants to travel for work, just like not every woman would pass up that opportunity.”
It’s not always about stereotypes. An analysis of commonly used words in postings targeting a specific gender shows that roles traditionally associated with men, such as “fire rescue,” or “public security management” also appeared in women-targeted recruitment notices — though still far less often than in ads targeting men. Meanwhile, even jobs often considered “women’s work,” such as “financial management” or office jobs as bank tellers, frequently ask for male candidates.
In other words, sometimes the decision to include a gender preference in a job posting is motivated more by the desire to control an office’s gender ratio, even if it comes at the cost of open competition.
The Female Body Problem
One of the most commonly cited reasons for preferring male candidates to female ones in China is that female candidates cost more, especially if they get pregnant. A 2020 analysis of hiring discrimination broke the problem down into two parts. First, as Chinese law forbids enterprises from cutting pregnant staffers’ salaries or firing them, many companies complain that staffing women will leave them on the hook, paying people not to work.
Second, as the workload of a given position is fixed, if companies think a woman will be physically unable to complete her tasks due to her supposed physiological limitations, they will have to hire additional employees — and take on additional costs — to complete the same amount of work.
In the eyes of many scholars and experts, the real root of the problem can be traced to inadequate protections for female workers. Currently, the maximum award a court can give for psychological damages related to hiring discrimination is capped at 2,000 yuan ($300). That’s nowhere near high enough to deter violators, much less compensate the victim.
Not only this, but as Sichuan University law professor Zhou Wei has argued, companies in China pay little to no reputational price for discriminatory hiring practices. The end result is a situation in which hiring discrimination isn’t encouraged, but also isn’t meaningfully forbidden. If anything, the low costs imposed for discrimination actively encourage companies to see how far they can push the envelope.
No Shortage of Policies, But No Solution in Sight
There are clear signs that the government is trying to address the problem of hiring discrimination. In February 2019, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, together with the Ministry of Education, published a notice on hiring practices with the specific intention of boosting the female employment rate. The notice’s second article emphasizes that, with the exception of the few jobs that are legally off-limits to women, such as anything involving work in a mine shaft, no company can practice discriminatory or preferential hiring. The document also called on state-owned enterprises and public institutions to take the lead in respecting legal prohibitions against hiring discrimination. This January, the People’s Supreme Court further clarified that government agencies are by no means exempt from these rules.
Yet actual progress has been slow. A look at the data shows that, over the past five years, the number of civil service positions expressing gender preference has not only not dropped, it’s actually gone up. Setting the tax authorities aside, the proportion of other positions expressing a preference for men has risen from 28% to 35%. Positions advertised to women rose from 0% to 5% over that same period.
“They (the notices) are just pieces of paper,” Xiao Yao says. “When we report (discriminatory practices), a lot of government departments don’t even realize what they’re doing is wrong.”
The effects of these hiring practices are felt far beyond the job market. “Economic independence and the right to work are crucial to women’s fight for gender equality,” Xiao Yao told me. “If we can’t even guarantee the latter, then we’re at a dead end.”
That dead end keeps looming larger. In 2012, the World Economic Forum ranked China 69th in its annual Gender Gap Report. By 2020, China had fallen to 106th.
A version of this article first appeared on the site of Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper. It can be found here.
Translators: Liu Chang and Kilian O’Donnell; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao for Sixth Tone)