In China, WeChat Is Blurring Workplace Boundaries — Especially for Women
Since graduating with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university, Tian has landed a job running a laboratory engaged in cutting-edge work at one of China’s top research institutes. But even she doesn’t know how to handle her account on WeChat — China’s do-everything messaging app.
“What kind of female scientist should I be playing on WeChat?” Tian wondered during one of our interviews. “How should I behave?” (To protect her identity, I am referring to her only by her surname.)
Women have long been under pressure to act in certain ways in the workplace: dress well, wear full makeup, and never challenge their male peers. Nowadays, that pressure often extends to social media. As one of my interviewees noted, “It’s tiring enough having to behave like a meek woman at work, but now I’m hunted down on WeChat and have to carry on performing there.”
For many female professionals, WeChat has emerged as a sore spot, in part for how it’s taking over their professional as well as personal lives. Imagine if you mixed all of your Slack, Discord, Microsoft Teams, and Facebook contacts into a single app — then gave them all access to your primary social media feed. That’s the norm for many China’s white-collar workers: Although WeChat began as a purely social app, it is now used widely in Chinese offices, blurring the boundaries between colleague and friend in ways many women find uncomfortable.
The problem is especially acute for women in male-dominated industries like IT, where they are often stigmatized as less capable than men. But male-centric norms persist even in industries dominated by women. For example, in professions such as nursing, education, and housekeeping, saying that a woman works “like a man” is considered a compliment, and is equated with being tough and emotionally stable, and even having leadership potential.
As part of an academic study on women’s experiences of WeChat in the workplace, Tian Xiaoli of the University of Hong Kong and I interviewed 48 professional women about how they used the app. We found they respond to these biases by curating their online personas and bringing them in line with their professional ones. Just as women were once required to dress in certain ways, now more and more women are adopting gendered online personas to placate their colleagues and supervisors.
These personas vary from woman to woman. Women like Tian — who have specific vocational skills and a strong career focus — prefer to emphasize their professional identity while downplaying their sex. Although they are aware of gender inequalities in the workplace, they’re not looking to change or challenge these inequalities so much as keep their heads down and integrate into the dominant gender norms. They’ll use a formal headshot as their profile picture and rarely post anything on social media that’s related to their sex — whether it’s their children or glamor shots. Some even deliberately appropriate language commonly used by their male colleagues when communicating on WeChat, referring to their coworkers with terms like “brother” or “comrade.”
Other women, most notably young women who are just entering the workforce and married women not in senior management positions, choose to emphasize their femininity and play down their professional identities. The former group tends to present themselves in a cute and non-threatening manner — conforming to the shabaitian archetype, a Chinese term that literally translates to “silly, naïve, and sweet.” They create a warm and sweet persona in their WeChat feeds, and use emojis and girlish expressions to present a soft, feminine image. One highly educated interviewee recalled that, in the early stages of her career, she intentionally posted photos of herself baking cakes to show that she was tender and capable of maintaining good interpersonal relationships.
Meanwhile, married women not in leadership or management positions often adopt a matronly persona: that of the dama, or “auntie.” For example, they post content about their children and family activities to create the impression of a harmonious home life.
Finally, some women, especially those in lower socio-economic positions, perform femininity in ways calculated to please their male superiors and coworkers. With fewer professional prospects, they’re more motivated to pander to their male supervisors in exchange for favorable treatment. For example, they will like their male supervisors’ WeChat posts, appeal to their egos, and even flirt with them or their male colleagues.
No matter what kind of persona women choose to adopt in digital spaces, it’s clear that they are not in full control of how they present themselves or are perceived. “Companies hire you to work, not to be yourself,” one of our interviewees explained. “WeChat is for increasing your (work) efficiency – it’s not somewhere for you to be yourself.”
The intersection of gender norms and social media can also lead to more serious problems. Some of the women we interviewed acknowledged receiving messages from colleagues or supervisors on WeChat of an implied or overt sexual nature. As a passive coping mechanism, most women choose to ignore such messages and not make a fuss. They often delete or block sexually explicit messages or images, but do not confront their harassers and ask them to cease.
In part, this is because they have nowhere to take their complaints. Many interviewees work in male-dominated offices and worry about retaliation if they speak up.
But the growing adoption of WeChat — and the always-online work culture it’s fostered — reduces their options even further. Online harassment is more obscure and harder to define than traditional forms — all the more so when your personal and professional accounts are the same. For example, one interviewee mentioned that male colleagues frequently sent her messages late at night asking things like “You up?” and “What’re you doing?”
“It’s hard to say exactly whether it’s (sexual) harassment or not,” she explained. “But it makes me really uncomfortable.”
Given the pressure of workplace power relations and the substantial consequences of speaking up, victims may downplay the seriousness of online sexual advances. One interviewee once told us, “If it’s just online and doesn’t involve any physical contact, then I can tolerate it.” Supervisors have power over who receives promotions and their subordinates’ career prospects, and uncertain work environments force women to make concessions and compromises in order to protect their jobs. After weighing up the pros and cons of making a stand, many opt for silence as the safest option.
New digital technologies are often romanticized. We expect that they’ll lead to greater social freedom, equality, and inclusion. But the creation, operation, and negotiation of social media are more frequently used to assist, support, and maintain existing social systems, rather than disrupt them. WeChat is no exception. The app’s negative impacts, from its role in our always-on work culture to the blurring of the work-life boundaries and the strengthening of superior-subordinate power relations, are increasingly hard to ignore. That’s doubly true for women, for whom the app has become much more about systematic and subtle gender control than liberation and empowerment.
This article is co-authored by Tian Xiaoli, an associate professor from the University of Hong Kong.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visuals from Pavel Naumov/Getty Creative/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)