Gender Discrimination in the Workplace: Does it Still Exist for Chinese Women?



In December 2013, China had a revolutionary court hearing. Cao Ju (not her real name), a young woman just out of college, filed a lawsuit against Juren Academy accusing them of violating her right to equal work. Cao had applied for a position as an administrative assistant at Juren Academy, but her application was rejected because she was a woman and she had applied to a “male-only” position. Although it took Cao over a year to get her case accepted in court, she finally received a formal apology from Juren Academy and walked away with 30,000 yuan--which she will use to start an organization that defends the rights of working women in China.


In 2011, a study by the Beijing Working Committee on Women and Children revealed that over 61 percent of women reported discrimination in job searches. Cao’s case was supposedly the first time a gender employment discrimination case was formally addressed in China.

Discrimination in the workplace is not a new problem for China’s women. Wage inequality, inadequate provisions for working mothers, and gender employment discrimination are a few of the challenges Chinese working women have been battling for a long time.

A 2014 report by Grant Thornton International suggests that this situation is improving, however. According to the study, China ranks in the top 10 percent in the world for proportion of women in senior management.  Additionally, women occupy 21% of company board positions in China, a percentage higher than global average of 17%. The report also said that 63% of Chinese businesses have female CFOs. So why are women like Cao still experiencing discrimination?

Although from the outside it looks like China is leading the world in including women in the workforce, sexism and discrimination still exist--merely in more subtle forms. Wen Hua, an anthropologist, noted that “discrimination has changed from overt to recessive” but that it still very much exists. Hua said that “the situation might be even worse” because “hidden prejudice and discrimination against women is harder to avoid and punish."

Women may now hold more management positions in China, but they are still susceptible to discrimination and harassment. In 2013, the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center surveyed 1,500 women and found that over 80% of them had suffered sexual harassment in the workplace.

Gender discrimination appears in the employment process as well. The Seattle Times pointed out that women often have to provide detailed personal information on their relationship status and reproductive plans when applying for jobs. A working mother from Changsha named Xia Fang said that job interviewers always ask her if she is an only child or if she plans to have a second child. "I don't plan to have a second child.” Xia said, “But when potential employers learn that my first child is a girl, they think I'm likely to have another baby,". Because having a baby means needing time off, companies are hesitant to hire potential first or second time mothers.

The qualities looked for in female job applicants also reflect inequality and sexism. In  2012, a study on gender discrimination in work ads found that ads requesting male workers preferred applicants to be older and more experienced, while ads seeking women preferred young, tall, and attractive applicants.

Wen Hua elaborated on this, noting that some jobs have height, weight, and attractiveness qualifications for women. In her book, Buying Beauty: Cosmetic Surgery in China, Hua claimed that even the Chinese government is guilty of having physical requirements for women. She said that the government is “trying to attract the tallest or the prettiest people, because it makes [the government] look good,” and that “The belief that better looks secure better jobs has pushed more and more Chinese college students to spend lavish amounts of money on cosmetic surgery.”

While Wen Hua admitted that this kind of discrimination happens less now, she was firm that women and men in the workplace are not yet equal.

This inequality was exemplified in an article by CNN that talked about women being “celebrated in the wrong way” on International Women’s Day. The article highlighted how advertisements for International Women’s Day encourage men to give gifts of cosmetics, flowers, and kitchen accessories to the women they know, including employees and co-workers. This sort of subtle stereotyping is the “recessive” discrimination Wen Hua was talking about. “Chinese women are once again being reminded that when it comes to work, there's a gulf between themselves and their male cohorts.” the article stated.

Another battle working women face is the pull between motherhood and a career. Nicole Zhang, a senior human resources consultant, said that “Many strong women must give up marriage or pregnancy before age 35 if they are determined to be promoted during their ‘golden age’,”. According to China Daily, a female professional named Liu was “passed over for a promotion that went to a young man, because her boss thought she might plan to have a second child.”

China’s work system makes it nearly impossible for women to work and parent at the same time, which is why many jobs forbid women from becoming pregnant while working. According to  China Daily, only 30 percent of companies in China grant flexible working hours to working women with children, compared with 63 percent of companies worldwide. An article published by Women of China highlighted this difficult situation for working mothers,

”Marriage and childbirth are not only the most important events in women's lives, but also important ways to reproduce and build the social labor force, and maintain the sustainable development of society. However, in market-oriented allocation of resources of the labor market, marriage and childbirth becomes an important pretext for employers for female gender discrimination in employment. As a result, many women lose their jobs.” it said.

According to Dominic King, global research manager for Grant Thornton, “The concept of "opportunity for all" is deeply embedded in Chinese society and has boosted gender equality,”. The Seattle Times takes a different stance, however. “China’s constitution says all citizens are equal, and the country has laws barring employment discrimination on the basis of gender.” they said. “In practice, though, regulations are often flouted, enforcement by regulators is lax, and until now courts have been unwilling to take up workplace gender-bias cases.”

So is China moving forward with equality in the workplace? Unfortunately, many more improvements are needed before Chinese women will have adequate working rights. However, despite the subtle discrimination towards women that is still prevalent in China, the future is hopeful for female professionals. More women are being given senior management positions, and more organizations, like the one Cao Ju wants to start, are advocating for women’s working rights. Recently, Proya, one of China’s leading cosmetic manufacturers, teamed up with United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women to promote women’s employment and gender equality. Slowly, more initiatives like this are showing up in China.

We pray that efforts like these will continue to grow and succeed. Praise God for brave women like Cao Ju and companies like Proya who stand up for women’s rights and celebrate women as wives, mothers, and talented workers. By the grace of God, Chinese working women will keep moving forward!

by Emilie, All Girls Allowed


All Girls Allowed ( was founded in 2010 with a mission to display the love of Jesus by restoring life, value and dignity to girls and mothers in China and revealing the injustice of the One-Child Policy.  “In Jesus’ Name, Simply Love Her.”

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