China Business

Sexism China Style

Sexism in China

When I first read this post over at the Josh in China blog, I smiled. But then I frowned. Okay, I didn’t really frown, but I’m going for literary effect here.

The post is entitled, Interesting Cultural Differences, and it reflexively notes how the women at Chinese toll booths are uniformly “extremely good looking girls.” When Josh discussed this observation of his with a cab driver, the cabbie responded by saying, “Of course! These are the people welcoming you into the city. They have to be beautiful!” Josh then tells us that the pay for these jobs is “three or four times that of a typical retail job.” Probably better job security and benefits too.

Now at first this seems harmless, but it isn’t. Now before anyone calls me a prude or anything, trust me I am not. But I also have two daughters and I would never want them to be hired or not hired for a job based on their looks. Now I also know full well that nearly all of us have our own prejudices when it comes to looks and there is no way those can be fully excised when hiring, but blatant sexism is undoubtedly a bad thing and that is exactly what we have here. With any sexism on the plus side in hiring means there has to be a concomitant sexism on the downside. For every attractive woman hired for this job, there is one less attractive woman who missed out on it.

If I had to rate China on a sexism scale among the countries I know best, it does fairly well. It is not as good as the United States or Spain, but it is considerably better than Korea and better than Japan as well. I would say it is about the same as Russia. My sense is that pretty women in China are favored more in employment than in the United States, but that women who do their jobs well (no matter what their looks) are taken seriously. I am basing nearly all this analysis on observations in law firms and on conversations with female lawyers so it is about as far from scientific as one can get.

Would love to hear from others in other industries. What do you think?

UPDATE: China Beat, recently did a somewhat related post, From Iron Girls to Oriental Beauties, on the historical perceptions of female beauty in the PRC.

33 responses to “Sexism China Style”

  1. The problem is that when a primary criterion is “good looks,” or a body type within a prescribed range, those who might be more qualified though don’t fit into the “mold” don’t have the chance to exhibit their qualifications. I think the “Ode to the Motherland” Olympic flap proved that in official circles image is still more important than qualifications. Or at least it is in the official national karaoke culture.

  2. Sexism in China isn’t just about using attractiveness to hire women. A lot of job adverts will openly state – this job is for men.
    When my wife finished her BA degree and was searching for jobs, there were a lot of jobs that she was very well qualified for, but they wouldn’t have hired her because she was female.
    All of these companies, had they been in the UK or USA, would have been sued for sexual discrimination. The cases would have been open and shut cases.
    I do agree that China is better than Japan – my head of department in both of the universities I taught in were women. That wouldn’t have happened in Japan. But I think that there is still a huge difference with the US and Europe.

  3. It’s not just about good looks, either. Height is just as important as facial features. Short people don’t have a chance here in China. Height requirements are common for lots of jobs here, and its applies to men as well as women.

  4. I’m an ESL teacher in a training school and I teach a lot of people who work in the airline industry. They literally have beauty pageants to select new flight attendants – they have to be very pretty and young before they will even be considered. In fact, I was just discussing this serious discrimination problem with one of my students this evening!

  5. It is not sexism but beautism or lookism, the same is true for stewardesses/flight attendants in China, they are hired based on age, height, weight, and looks in China.

  6. I remember I watched a TV show one time about China, and it followed a young married woman with a computer science background, her husband and her mother. She talked about how it is very difficult to climb up within a company because there are so many employees with approximately the same qualifications. The way many companies determine who gets promoted is based on looks. This also goes for hiring new employees because there are so many new graduates within China every year, plus all the ones overseas who go and look for jobs in China. She ends up getting plastic surgery (double eyelids, no surprise) in hopes that she will look more attractive and get a promotion. And, her husband and her mom are in full support because they feel that it is necessary for career advancement.
    If you think the plastic surgery industry is big in Korea already, wait until it becomes more mainstream in China (if it’s not already).

  7. I concur with Nikki’s post. The “ism” implicated here is beautism or beautyism , lookism, or prettyism [it’s not what you know it’s how you look knowing it] and it is rampant in the U.S. I can’t speak much for china outside the small corner I have briefly inhabited where I don’t think I’m seeing. But then I don’t know if Chinese standards for this “ism” are different from the West’s. I imagine they are.

  8. Dan, your post was spot on. Major banks really do have height requirements, and they follow them strictly from what I’ve been told by bank employees. Chinese restaurants also have a strong prejudice towards young women, and of course within that they prefer “pretty”.
    Beyond establishing a rule of law society, there are also the intangibles of equalilty that cannot always be legislated away. In addition, this contributes to the poor customer service one often gets in China. Restaurants, shops, banks don’t bother weeding out the incompetent and letting the talent rise to the top. Instead, what one gets are women who aren’t encouraged to develop themselves and learn some pretty ugly (pardon the pun) things about the world at a young age. I don’t mean to suggest that waiting tables or being a bank clerk is necessarily a woman’s job; rather these seem to be jobs often reserved for pretty young women.
    The saddest part about it is that China is regarded as “better” per sexism than Korea or Japan. A Shanghainese friend who works has worked as a Japanese translator and traveled/worked in Japan often tells me that despite the problems China faces, she would never consider working in Japan, despite the higher salary. And when I was studying in Shanghai, among my classmates were several Korean women who felt that they had a much better chance at getting a fair gig/salary in China than they did at home.
    Now, it would be unfair to say there isn’t a lot of discussion about this, but that is just it: the matter is subject to debate! I wonder if after awhile there are so many other pressing social/economic/environmental problems that need addressing (and need to be addressed now) that the sexism gets swept under the rug.
    I found this interesting article online about it, and notice that in Taipei; these women could considered using the courts to address this problem, but what of the mainland?

  9. Toll Booth woman hot eh…… obviously all live in the “window dressing” cities.
    Although I agree with this post about beautiful woman being hired over the “ugly” girls, this is true in every country!!! I remember when I visited my Dad’s retirement party at one of the large pharmaceutical companies back in the states after not being home in awhile was that many of the new sales people were young, beautiful women.
    The only difference between the West and China is that the Chinese will outright admit this fact because they have no fear of being sued! I am not here saying that this is right or wrong but just fact!
    Also, every time I fly back home from China, I am happy to fly an Western airline because of the pilots, but loathe the rest of the flight. This is due to the fact that I have always received great service from Asian stewardesses, but when I come into contact with Western stewardesses, they are short with people (especially the ones whose English isn’t as refined as theirs) and slow with service.

  10. Very interesting post, Dan!
    I think you are seeing one manifestation of a larger problem. Many employers have recruiting requirements that are unrelated to job performance. I routinely see help wanted ads that demand a specific sex, height, marital status, hukou, age, level of attractiveness, etc. It seems to me that this is a symptom of a society that has set ideas about where people belong and attempts to place them accordingly.

  11. Ahh, its nice to see one aspect of Chicago (or Illinois) is alive and well in China, patronage. Toll booth gigs are equally high paying and secure in Illinois, and only doled out to those with bigtime political connections.
    In any case, what “skills” does it take to give out drinks on an airplane or give a driver his change? I get your pointt, and it is a worthy one, but when jobs require intelligence or skill, looks are more or less ignored (until it comes down to one homely and one pretty girl with pretty much equal skills).

  12. Chinese girls/women, by and large, don’t want rights. It is my understanding that there actually is a law against this in mainland China, but no one challenges the offenders.

  13. Not to play devil’s advocate here, but exactly what industries do we say that it’s ok to judge someone on their beauty. Certainly film, TV, music and modeling are all industries where it’s 100% acceptable (Western or otherwise) to judge the person being hired on their looks. Particularly women, but men as well.
    So, if a country and culture decides that this can also be applied to the airline industry, and toll booth collectors, or traffic cops… is there really that striking a difference?
    I’m not passing judgment on the ethics of it, just merely pointing out it sort of seems convenient to cover our eyes to some industries that are (for the time being at least) acceptable industries to judge someone’s beauty in while waving sticks at others.
    I should admit, however, that I’m very anti-affirmative action in virtually any form. I believe a company should hire whomever they wish to hire. The leveling ground should not be in the independent hiring practices of companies, but in assuring everyone (young, old, black, white, rich, poor, hot or not) have the same access to the skills and tools that allow them to try for the job they want.

  14. Stereotype and discrimination are the tools with which one hammers collectivism. Welcome to China. Please attach photo.

  15. Ron why would you be happy to fly home on a Western or American airline? They are horrible at service and the seats are worse. I refuse to fly them and will only fly a Chinese or Korean airline home from China!

  16. @outcast: you really think “Chinese girls/women, by and large, don’t want rights”?!?! there is a law against the blatant discrimination Chris Lowe talked about – companies routinely saying they want men, not women, since men don’t get pregnant and/or decide to stay home with the children – but women will often complain about this. the problem is, class action lawsuits aren’t really permitted in China, as the melamine in milk case has demonstrated. So anyone who doesn’t have the tools/ability to stand up for his/her rights automatically “doesn’t want rights”?

  17. To those who point out that discrimination exists in the west, and that many of us (including myself) tacitly condone it: you cannot prevent sexism, but there are ways to address it and remedy it, and those may be the areas in which China is the most lacking.
    You can say that the modeling industry or airline industry allow discrimination, but honestly, does anyone expect the modeling industry to occupy the same place/rules in any society as, the banking or customer service industry? Further, the current hiring practices of the airline industry are vastly different than they were 3 decades ago.

  18. I visited the US Capitol once (during working sessions). Most of the interns looked liked they came straight out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue, almost all uniformly very good looking, definitely not your “average” Americans… I guess the Chinese choose good looking toll collectors, and we (or our reps) choose pretty Capitol Hill interns…

  19. @ 尼克
    Like I said above, I like to fly an American or Western airline because of the pilots and my adventures of flying Chinese airlines within China the last 10 years (now Dan, thats a whole other blog entry).

  20. “the problem is, class action lawsuits aren’t really permitted in China,”
    Class action suits maybe not, but individual suits are.
    “but women will often complain about this”
    I’ve never heard it once.
    “So anyone who doesn’t have the tools/ability to stand up for his/her rights automatically “doesn’t want rights”?”
    No, but most of them have no real desire to have it either. Most of the ones I have talked to just say “oh I just want to have a family” or something to that effect. For one thing it is their total lack of ambition, and their willingness to accept being in unequal and/or abusive relationships.

  21. I’m not entirely sure how this fits into the debate, but recently in Beijing’s Huairou District a woman sued her estranged husband for the right to breastfeed. He’d taken the baby away, so she sued. The court just found in her favour, but instead of upholding her right to breastfeed, the judge said that to protect the legal rights and interests of women and children and to ensure the child’s healthy development the child should live with its mother. The man had tried to divorce his wife, but was rejected by the authorities because in China it is illegal for a man to divorce his wife while she is still breastfeeding.
    Apologies for blowing my own trumpet, but I have a post about this case here which includes links to the original reports.

  22. I’ve always found it interesting to read Chinese “help wanted” signs for their requirements. The signs often explicitly state the sex of the desired employee, as well as their height and age. Apparently, being too short (like being too ugly) can lose you a job. But hey, look on the bright side…when was the last time you were at a fancy Chinese restaurant and greeted by an ugly, overweight, middle-aged woman with bad acne?

  23. Great post Dan. It’s true that sexism of this kind is a growing problem in China. However, looking at the bigger picture, China that perfom comparativley well on at least some measures of gender equity. Allow me, to save time, to quote from pages 69-70 of my book:
    Released in 2005, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index found China to be ‘the most gender-equitable society in Asia’, with a higher female to male income ratio than in the United States. The development of the service sector over recent decades has created many employment and business opportunities for Chinese women.
    Research carried out by the Association of Female Entrepreneurs back in 2004 showed that China twenty percent of all Chinese entrepreneurs were women, with the total number of female entrepreneurs on the mainland growing by a whopping sixty percent between 1996 and 2004.
    According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1950 the earnings of China’s women accounted for twenty percent of family income but by 2004 this figure had risen to forty percent. ‘Increasingly, as in most of Asia, girls in China are leading their school classes in grades, and more and more go to college and take white-collar jobs.’ Roughly sixty percent of the teachers in elementary schools to universities in Shanghai are female, more than sixty percent of health workers are female, and in 2004 the percentage of women in finance topped fifty percent. With women now making up slightly over forty percent of the country’s workforce, it’s not surprising that much of China’s consumer revolution is geared towards the female market, whose purchasing power is now very significant.
    Despite the undeniable progress in improving women’s lives, the present picture remains mixed, as Randall Peerenboom points out in his book, China Modernizes: ‘The participation of women in political life is still low,’ he writes, ‘especially at higher levels of government; domestic violence still occurs frequently; and social ills such as female trafficking and infanticide remain problems.’
    Chinese women may not rule the nation, but they do in most cases rule the family nest, according to Xiaojing. ‘The typical Chinese man hands his salary straight over to his wife to manage,’ she delighted in telling me. ‘Did you know that ninety-five percent of all Chinese businesses that are owned and managed by women are profitable? But twenty percent of Chinese businesses run at a loss. So women clearly make better financial managers than men. Chairman Mao once said that women hold up half the sky, but he was wrong, because in reality women hold up nearly all the sky. If you were wise, you’d hand over all your money to me to manage. You seem to burn money too easily; especially you waste a lot on beer.’

  24. @outcast:
    “Class action suits maybe not, but individual suits are.”
    The gender equity law in China lacks details, making it hard to be enforced. And the rule of law is very weak here. The legal way is seldom considered efficient.
    “I’ve never heard it once.”
    Maybe the women you know are used to the unpleasant facts or they believe they can still do well despite the discrimination. I hear such complaints from time to time.
    “No, but most of them have no real desire to have it either. Most of the ones I have talked to just say “oh I just want to have a family” or something to that effect. For one thing it is their total lack of ambition, and their willingness to accept being in unequal and/or abusive relationships.”
    The thing about China’s gender equity is there was never really a women’s movement or anything alike. The rights of women were “given” by the authorities of the country because it’s one of the values of communism. So the whole thinking, debating, arguing, fighting part was kinda missing. The result is the absence of gender awareness of most Chinese people. But things are changing. I do know many girls/women that think and live their lives independently, with dignity.

  25. To that most delightful and insightful lady who commented “You seem to burn money too easily; especially you waste a lot on beer.’”:
    Yes, I admit so even though my greatest expense is wine and other women, and I understand women can manage my finances and personal life better than myself but… know me and you’ll tolerate my slight imperfections, I promise.
    N.B. All others need not reply.

  26. And more intelligent people are routinely hired over less intelligent people. Moral of the story: if you didn’t win the genetic lottery you’ll have to work harder.

  27. Scott Loar – the “insightful lady” happens to be my other half, and she is certainly quite a feisty one to deal with at times. There’s a photo of her on my book’s promotional website – don’t be fooled by her innocent looks.

  28. “The thing about China’s gender equity is there was never really a women’s movement or anything alike. The rights of women were “given” by the authorities of the country because it’s one of the values of communism. So the whole thinking, debating, arguing, fighting part was kinda missing. The result is the absence of gender awareness of most Chinese people.”
    Which is exactly my point, if they wanted rights then they would at least have a basic desire for it, but there isn’t even that.

  29. “Class action suits maybe not, but individual suits are.”
    -a further comment: there is a reason why class action lawsuits are used for this type of case – they spread out costs/risks. it is no one individual woman’s interest to bear the cost of a lawsuit on this issue, especially in the current state of China’s legal system.
    I have heard many many women complain about this system, though granted they tend to be young – under 30 – and most very ambitious.
    Political activism in China is still in a very early stage; it is not second nature for Chinese women to fight for their rights as it may be for american women. instead they are expected to and often do 吃苦 and bear it. this does not mean, if asked, they don’t want to change the system. they just don’t see outright activism as justifying the costs/risks.

  30. Re: Outcast
    Chinese women do want equality. The problem is that in China as a whole, most people have a lack of power.
    For example, in one of my English classes, the best student didn’t end up representing the class in a speech contest. Instead a boy did. She wasn’t happy about it when I talked to her, but she didn’t think that there was anything that she could do about it, or that anything would change.
    Many Chinese are resigned to the injustices that they suffer, and don’t complain. But if you spend some time in a proper conversation with them, and dig a little bit, you’ll find that they are pissed about it.
    As the law system in China develops, and if it begins to replace political influence and corruption, then Chinese people will be more forthcoming in their complaints. But that is a big ‘if’.

  31. “domestic violence still occurs frequently; and social ills such as female trafficking and infanticide remain problems.’”
    Gee, I wonder why.
    “Chinese women do want equality. The problem is that in China as a whole, most people have a lack of power.”
    They do have power over one thing: their attitudes. So why is it that, when I ask a girl why does a job she doesn’t like the most common answer is “it’s suitable for girls”? Why is it that chinese girls are so willing to throw themselves at cheating and/or abusive men? If they really wanted rights, they would not do or say things like this.

  32. As an addendum to my previous post, I would like to draw everyone’s attention to this: particular number one and number seven.
    Number one speaks for itself, but number seven highlights exactly what I have been talking about. If these girls really wanted rights, why are they committing suicide because of emotional trouble with their marriages?

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