Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Hong Kong — Workplace discrimination in China often begins with help-wanted ads.

Job recruitment websites routinely feature advertisements from prominent technology employers such as Alibaba Group, Baidu. and Tencent, for positions that are open only to men, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch on Monday.

And the New York-based group said job discrimination against women took other forms: Chinese companies often have requirements on the height, weight, voice or appearance of female applicants that have nothing to do with their qualifications for the job.

With the three big internet companies boasting they had "beautiful girls" or "goddesses," those ads contributed to widespread gender discrimination in the workplace, Human Rights Watch said.

"Sexual objectification of women — treating women as a mere object of sexual desire — is prevalent in Chinese job advertising," the report said.

Human Rights Watch analysed more than 36,000 advertisements, most of them posted since 2013, on corporate and government websites and social media platforms. Researchers looked for terms related to gender preferences such as "men only" and "suitable for women."

A search of Alibaba’s website in January found "men only" or "men preferred" ads for jobs including government affairs senior specialist and crowd-sourcing delivery manager, according to the report. Human Rights Watch said the e-commerce giant’s recruitment social media account published photos of young female employees and described them as "late night benefits."

Tencent apology

A Tencent ad featured a male employee saying the presence of beautiful women was one reason he joined the company, and in a Baidu ad a male staff said having attractive female colleagues was one reason he was happy at work, Human Rights Watch said.

In an e-mailed statement, Tencent said it had investigated the incidents and would make immediate changes.

"We are sorry they occurred and we will take swift action to ensure they do not happen again," it said.

"Tencent values diverse backgrounds and recruits staff based on talent and ability."

Baidu said it "deeply" regretted what it described as "isolated instances" of job postings that did not align with its values, and that the company had removed those ads prior to the release of the report. Baidu said women accounted for 45% of its employees, with mid-and senior positions reflecting a similar number.

Alibaba said it conducted regular reviews of recruitment ads and had "well-defined guidelines" on providing equal opportunities regardless of gender. It said 47% of the company’s employees were women and women leaders occupied one-third of its management positions.

Uphill battle

The report offers a glimpse into how ubiquitous sexist practices are in Chinese workplaces — as tech companies in Silicon Valley are struggling to combat allegations of discrimination against women. It also underscores the challenges President Xi Jinping faces in trying to follow through on a pledge to fight against workplace discrimination.

By some measures, conditions have improved for women in China. Maternal mortality rates have declined and tertiary education rates have risen, according to McKinsey & Co. The management consultancy is set to release a report on Tuesday showing China’s progress on workplace gender issues is above average compared with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

"China’s technology sector stands out as a shining example of a space where female entrepreneurship has had global impact," McKinsey said in an e-mailed statement.

#MeToo Hashtags

The reports come at a time when China has sought to control a nascent #MeToo movement, with the government censoring hashtags similar to #MeToo. While Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, NBC anchor Matt Lauer and Amazon Studios boss Roy Price are among prominent US executives to have resigned or been fired because of sexual harassment, China has not had a similar reckoning.

In the corporate world, Tencent in January 2017 apologised for a sexually suggestive game organised at a division’s annual party after attendees posted footage online of kneeling female staff who appeared to try to use their mouths to open water bottles tucked between men’s legs.

Tech companies were not the only employers that have discriminated against women, Human Rights Watch said. Of postings for central government jobs in 2017 that researchers analysed, about 13% — or more than 1,700 postings — included a requirement or preference for male applicants.

China was 86th worldwide in a 2017 World Economic Forum ranking of countries offering the best economic opportunities to women, down from 53rd in 2006. In the same survey of women’s status worldwide, China ranked 102nd in educational attainment, down from 78th in 2006; 144th in health and survival, compared with 114th a decade earlier; 77th in political empowerment, down from 52nd.

Chinese women in the workplace faced intense pressure based on their looks, said Rui Ma, a San Francisco-based angel investor. The term "yanzhi," or physical appearance metric, was part of everyday business language, she said.

‘Yanzhi’ metric

"The underlying idea is that it is totally normal to rely on your ‘yanzhi’ as a primary job competence," Ma said. "People don’t really question it. It sounds extremely offensive but it’s been normalised. It’s going to be extremely hard to fight."

An operations staff member at Xiaomi, the Beijing-based smartphone maker that is targeting a $100bn valuation in an initial public offering, said on the social media platform WeChat Moments recently that the company mostly looked at "yanzhi" when hiring. He also said Xiaomi’s female employees were beautiful — and were even more beautiful when using the Xiaomi 6X phone to take selfies.

"This gives men the liberty and entitlement to judge women based on their appearance," said Pocket Sun, Singapore-based founder of SoGal Ventures, which invests in startups led by female entrepreneurs. "This kind of language leads people to think that this is the way women need to be judged."

In a statement, Xiaomi said it was committed to fairness in the workplace and always placed "high standards to ensure equality within the organisation."