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Does China’s tech ecosystem present a level playing field for all?

Women who have worked for Alibaba, ByteDance, Kuaishou, and Xiaomi share their experiences with gender inequality at the workplace.

It is no secret that global tech companies have a gender problem. The share of women working in the world’s largest tech companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—is only around 34.4%. On top of that, women working in US tech also suffer from a persistent pay gap, but how does this compare to the Chinese tech industry?

At first glance, tech companies in China seem to do better. Women make up almost 50% of the total employees in the sector’s big players such as Alibaba and Tencent. This does not mean, however, that women in Chinese tech enjoy a level playing field. Gender inequality remains, both in the economy as a whole and in the tech industry. 

One problem women face in China is the poor implementation of labor laws. On paper, the Chinese government promotes gender equality in “every aspect of life,” including the workplace. Still, that idea does not resonate with the actual experiences of women in the labor market.

For instance, in 2018, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, together with eight other national institutions, issued a new policy aimed at eliminating discrimination in recruitment. The policy prohibits employers from asking women about their marital or family status, and from requiring women to agree not to have children as an employment condition. Noncompliance could result in a fine of approximately USD 7,400 on employers and recruiters whose job ads are discriminatory based on gender. 

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions also published in 2019 a Handbook for Promoting Gender Equality in the workplace, aiming to facilitate access to a better work environment for women. The handbook states that employers must provide maternity protection in accordance with the law and must not transfer employees, reduce wages, or dismiss employees due to pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. In addition, it underlines that employment decisions should be based on the applicant’s qualifications. If a job has specific gender requirements, there must be a reasonable explanation. 

Yet Chinese women still face many challenges and obstacles to success in their professional lives. According to a report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, over the last few decades, China has actually experienced major gender inequality in its workforce.

A key reason for this is the decline in childcare support and government support for traditional family structures, in which women bear the responsibility to manage domestic duties. With an increasingly aging population, there is more pressure from society and the government for women to exit the job market for marriage and childbirth.

According to Catalyst’s survey, women in China spend three times that of men, or one-sixth of their lives, on unpaid household activities. Photo: Unsplash.

Chinese society has also popularized the term sheng nu for women, which translates as “leftover women” and weighs heavily on Chinese women whose success is undermined by their relationship status. Sheng nu refers to women in their late twenties who are still single, pursuing education, economic freedom, and a more unconventional life path than their parents. Rather than carrying a positive connotation, sheng nu are seen as bad examples in Chinese society, which still largely expects women to marry young.

These burdens on Chinese women reinforce some discriminatory practices against them at work. In particular, gender-based hiring biases are on the rise. According to a study by Human Rights Watch, nearly one-fifth of China’s national civil service job postings in 2018 specified a preference for male applicants over women.

Many employers even explicitly state in their job advertisements that they prefer men for many jobs. During the application process, women are usually asked whether they are married or have children, while many jobs for married women come with a condition: “Do not get pregnant, or we might fire you.”

Even if China prohibits workplace bias, actual enforcement is rare, and there are no high-profile cases against gender discrimination on record.

The struggle doesn’t stop after entering the office. Unequal opportunity in terms of promotions and salaries are two other common problems. Chinese women earn just 84% of what men make for similar work as of 2019, according to Catalyst’s survey. On average, they earn 36% less than men, ranking 106 out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Pay Index, thereby placing it in the bottom third.

“In order to get a wage raise, I have to remind my managers that if I were a man doing the same job, they would certainly pay me more and that I am being judged not by my capability but my gender,” Ying Gao, who has been working for more than ten years at tech companies including ByteDance and Kuaishou, told KrASIA.

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“We had three women and two men working on the same project. In general, my female colleagues and I were taking all the responsibility and working hard to finish it, while men only had a few things to take care of. But at the end of the day, although our supervisor liked the results, he was always asking women to improve. Men, instead, took all the credit and got promoted,” says Chen Chen (fictional name), who worked at Alibaba.

KrASIA approached Alibaba to find out more about its policies regarding gender equality in its workplace. A company spokesperson said that “gender equality is one of Alibaba’s core principles” and referenced its founders and executives. “One-third of Alibaba’s founders were women, while a third of the current executive leadership team are women,” the spokesperson said. Alibaba is “committed to empowering women entrepreneurship in China” and “exemplifies best practice on gender,” with a “track record of not just hiring but promoting women to leadership positions,” the spokesperson also said.

Yet another problem is prevalent in Chinese tech companies. Generally, the number of technical and leadership roles open for women is limited. Although women represent 50% of employees in China’s tech giants, they are underrepresented at executive levels and in research and development units, while they constitute a higher percentage of human resources and marketing-related positions.

The imbalance between departments can be traced back to a skewed distribution in university enrollment. Stereotypical notions, like the assumption that men are naturally better than women at math, lead women away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

“Luckily, unlike other Chinese parents, my family doesn’t give me any pressure that would block my career. They always support my decisions such as not marrying and not having a baby, but in the workplace . . . things are just unfair,” Chen told KrASIA.

Gender stereotypes around temper and age create another challenge for women, especially among entry-level and middle management roles, where male counterparts advance much faster. “When I have a work-related dispute with a male team member, although I am right, the leaders always want me to sing another tune when dealing with the situation. But I never saw them advising the same to the male employees,” said a woman that goes by the pseudonym of Xiaolin Li, who has worked at Xiaomi for several years.

The financing of companies is subject to similarly severe gender bias. According to International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, women are underrepresented as founders and leaders of companies receiving private equities (PE) or venture capital (VC) funding.

Only 15% of total PE and VC funding in China goes to female-led businesses, lower than the desired level, but higher than the average of other emerging markets, at 7%. The study also highlights how the return on investment is 20% greater in funds managed by gender-balanced teams compared to male- or female-dominated teams.

Source: International Finance Corporation’s 2019 “Moving towards gender balance in private equity and venture capital” report.

Greater efforts are needed

Compared to the US and UK, China is doing better in terms of women’s representation in businesses. While 53% of American technology companies have women in C-level positions, in China, the number is closer to 80%, according to a survey by Silicon Valley Bank that queried 900 clients across the US, the UK, and China. 

According to Bloomberg, among the top firms in the US, women make up 10% of the investing partners, while in China, 17% of partners are female.

Moreover, with the government’s push towards social investing, more companies are revealing their “diversity and inclusion reports,” in which they present their efforts to increase women representation in various departments of their companies.

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Lenovo is one example. The company aims to increase its percentage of global women executives to 20% by the end of 2020, and it has launched an initiative called Supplier Diversity Program, which focuses on providing the maximum practical opportunities for diverse suppliers to foster the inclusion of small, minority, women, and, LGBT-owned businesses, according to a report by the company.

Another example is Yum China. Last year, the company was named as one of the 230 companies that are creating gender-balanced workplaces for the 2019 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI). Yum China’s strong commitment to transparency in gender reporting and advancing women’s equality were underlined. 

These developments are solid first steps towards creating a more equal environment in the tech industry. Establishing a level playing field for women in the tech ecosystem would not only benefit women, but also the entire sector’s growth and development. In order to do so, more efforts are needed from the state and from the private sector.

KrASIA has also reached out to Kuaishou and Xiaomi for comments, and will provide updates if we receive responses from the companies’ representatives.