“Strong men wanted”: Tech hiring in China is rife with blatantly sexist job ads

Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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A review of nearly 40,000 job ads posted in the last five years shows how blatant sexism can be when it comes to hiring in China—even on the part of some of the country’s most global tech titans.

The report from US-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch found that Chinese employers, from civil services to retail to tech, often stated that men were preferred for a job, listed required physical attributes for jobs open to women, or emphasized the looks of their female employees in ads clearly directed at men. In the tech sector, this was as true for the country’s big three tech firms—search giant Baidu, online retailer Alibaba, and social media and gaming firm Tencent, together known as BAT—as well as some of its up-and-coming startups, such as delivery giant Meituan. While in some cases ads used code words to indicate a gender preference, such as the word “south” for men, since they sound similar, in many cases ads were perfectly open about their preferences.

For instance, in a video ad for Baidu, a young man says he gets to work with big names and, “We also get to work with beautiful girls. What do you think—am I happy?”  And an ad from March 2017, the tech firm listed “male” as one of the requirements for an information reviewer position. A Baidu spokesperson told Quartz the postings were isolated instances that didn’t reflect the company’s “dedication to workplace equality,” and that 45% of the firm’s employees are women.

In 2013, Alibaba posted a recruitment ad (link in Chinese) right before International Women’s Day that featured a series of photos of four female employees in sexually suggestive poses. “These are the goddesses in the hearts of Alibaba employees—smart and competent at work and charming and alluring in life. They are independent but not proud, sensitive but not melodramatic. They want to be your coworkers. Do you want that too?” reads the ad. The page is no longer accessible, although it was up until Friday (April 20).

In 2015, the online retailer retracted another job ad, which asked for candidates who resembled a Japanese porn star popular in China to apply after the ad incited criticism on social media. Alibaba didn’t reply to Quartz’s queries about its ads.

Meanwhile, a 2017 ad for a sports editor for Tencent’s Beijing office, the firm listed “strong men who can handle night shifts” as one requirement. In a statement to Quartz, Tencent said it valued diverse backgrounds. “These incidents clearly do not reflect our values. We have investigated these incidents and are making immediate changes. We are sorry they occurred and we will take swift action to ensure they do not happen again,” said the company.

Similar ads have also come from China’s emerging tech leaders. An ad aimed at college students stated that “Find a job=Find a woman. Do what you want to do the most.” In the ad, reportedly posted by food-delivery giant Meituan in 2012, the word “do” in Chinese can also imply sexual intercourse. The firm later denied that it (link in Chinese) had ever used the slogan. (Meituan is now known as Meituan Dianping after it merged with its rival in 2015.) A Meituan spokesperson said in a statement that “the advertisement in question was never officially approved by the firm and has not officially been posted by the company on any recruitment platforms.”

A search on Boss Zhipin, a recruiting site, also showed some tech startups (link in Chinese) listing “man only” in their job ads—the latter was the case (link in Chinese) for China’s ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, which was looking for a network engineer. Didi removed the ad on Friday, citing a posting error by an employee. “The industry practice is to hire male candidates for certain positions requiring heavy physical labor,” a spokesperson told Quartz, adding that Didi is committed to promoting gender inclusion, and that 40% of its employees are women. Boss Zhipin said in a statement that the firm examed job ads according to relevant laws and regulations, but didn’t address directly why those ads get away with its censorship mechanism.

China doesn’t lack for female tech entrepreneurs, but recruiters seem to believe the tech work schedule will be a challenge for women, especially those with young children, since they’re still the primary caregivers in China. Research conducted in 2017 by Zhilian Zhaopin, one of China’s major online recruiting sites, revealed that 22% of women (link in Chinese) had experienced severe sex discrimination while seeking employment, especially those aged between 25-34, the most likely period for women to start a family and have children.

The preference for men by companies in general persists even though the country has been trying to improve workplace rights for women, for instance by forbidding the firing of female employees (link in Chinese) because of pregnancy. But the women’s labor force participation rate has been declining in the past decade, and the country has also steadily slipped down an index that ranks gender parity, now coming in at 100 (pdf, p.11) out of 144 countries.

Some activists and experts say the status of women in China is declining in part because the government has grown increasingly concerned about its aging population and the excess number of men, and is putting pressure on women to marry and have families. China eased its one-child policy in 2015 after three decades of strict controls because of these worries. According to a survey by job search website (link in Chinese), 75% of companies said they have more concerns regarding recruiting female employees since the two-child policy came into effect.

Nor is the government setting a very good example itself—the HRW report also looked at civil service job ads and found that of central government ads posted in 2017, about 13% of them listed some kind of preference for men, often citing overtime or work travel for the reason. In 2018, nearly 20% of 3,000 civil service ads expressed these preferences.

Update: The piece has been updated with the responses from Meituan and Boss Zhipin on April 23.