Zhang Lijia
Zhang Lijia

Blatant discrimination on the job market is one of the major challenges for women in China. But they are gearing up to sue companies and institutions in court, if their adds search for ´male only´, notes author Zhang Lijia in ChinaFile.

Zhang Lijia:

But Huang was determined. “I wanted to go ahead (with the court case) even though I didn’t have the money for a lawyer,” says Huang, who gets by with piecemeal jobs and still hasn’t found full time employment. A friend introduced her to Cao Ju who offered not only useful advice and encouragement but also some funds to cover her legal costs. “There’s no better way to spend the money,” says Cao Ju. “Squeezing money out of the court case was not my intention. Fighting against sex discrimination is.” Cao also organized an online petition to rally support for Huang. So far, more than 400 women from all over the country have signed it.

Again with friends’ help, Huang found Nanjing-based lawyer Xu Ying who was willing to take on her case. “To me, the case is blatant sex discrimination,” says Xu. “Even the recruiter’s excuses rest on gender stereotypes: women are not suited to travel or they’re too weak to carry a suitcase. The only thing that matters here should be the applicant’s ability, not the person’s sex.”

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Promotion of Employment, adopted in 2007, includes explicit language forbidding gender discrimination in hiring and noting that, “When an employing unit recruits female workers, it shall not have such provisions as restrict female workers from getting married or bearing a child included in the labor contract.” The law also states that a job-seeker has the right to sue the employer in cases of gender discrimination. Why then have there been so few of such cases in China?

“Generally speaking, people in China are not very aware of their legal rights,” explains lawyer Xu. “There’s no tradition of suing an employer. And of course, going to court is expensive, time consuming, and the whole legal system doesn’t seem to be geared to cope with such cases.”

Indeed, it took well over a year for a Beijing court just to accept Cao’s case. It refused the case at first, citing a lack of precedent. Huang fared a little better. After back and forth negotiations with a Hangzhou court, the hearing took place on September 10, with the accused absent. The verdict is due in December.

A man from the Oriental Cooking School’s HR department, who refused to disclose his identity, said there was no need to appear for the hearing as the court will make a correct judgment according to facts. “Everything the plaintiff said was a lie. Sex discrimination? If so, why are there so many women teachers working at our school?”

Given the difficulties of filing a lawsuit, some have sought other methods to tackle gender discrimination. On December 26, 2013, eight female students from different cities in China wrote to their local governments to report job listings they suspected were discriminatory. Altogether, they found 41 such cases. 80% of jobs advertised were white-collar jobs that were not physically demanding, offered mostly by privately-owned enterprises. The women received hardly any response from the authorities. But young women from across the country continued the reports and they have gradually drawn more responses from the authorities.

The reports and lawsuits take place at a time when China is witnessing an increase in women’s rights activism.

In November 2013, ten university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, staged a demonstration in front of a local government building in Wuhan to protest invasive gynecological exams imposed on women applying for civil servant jobs.

Earlier that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads, silently voicing their anger against discrimination in admissions standards at universities. Some universitiesset higher standards for entrance examination scores for female students. In Beijing, three women dressed up in blood-stained wedding gowns to protest domestic violence; in Guangzhou, women queued in front of a toilet to protest against the lack of public toilets for women.

More in ChinaFile.

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