China Business

Sexism in China as Good Thing for Foreign Companies

Sexism in China

Had an interesting lunchtime discussion the other day with two dynamic international entrepreneurs on global prejudices. Both told me of how they “take advantage” of it by hiring women, racial and ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities in countries where other businesses are reluctant to hire these people.

And let’s face it, these prejudices exist, at least to some degree, in every country.

One of these entrepreneurs told me of how his small factory in Russia had hired one person with a physical disability and that person ended up recommending a whole slew of his friends with disabilities and in fairly short order, 22 of his 40 employees are people with disabilities. He then bragged of how he was able to get great employees in this mid-sized Russian city. He paid his employees with disabilities the same wages as the rest of his employees (which he said was about 10% more than the market rate) and  he was constantly looking for more. He freely pled guilty to now favoring the hiring of people with disabilities because those employees “missed work way less often, were far more productive when at work, and far more likely to stay.” They also just seemed “happier to be there and overall had much better attitudes.” As he put it, by being one of the only employers in town who actively sought out people with disabilities “I was able to ‘arbitrage’ some pretty incredible employees.” He even said that by the time he sold this factory, a number of other companies in town had come to realize the benefits of hiring based on actual performance, not perceptions.

The other person at our lunch talked of how he favors hiring women in China because they are almost always “20 percent better than men.” “Look at the foreign SMEs in China,” he said, “I think about 75% of them that are run by local Chinese are run by women. There’s a reason for that. Chinese women know American and European companies are less likely to engage in sexism than Chinese companies and so they choose to work for us. As long as Chinese companies discriminate against women, I am going to be scooping them up.” He then referred me to an Economist article that backed up what he was saying about how foreign companies in China prefer women due to “sexism in China.”

The Economist piece on “sexism in China” to which he referred me is actually about Korea (where this person also does a lot of business), but what it says about Korea holds true for China also. The article is entitled, Profiting from sexism: If South Korean firms won’t make use of female talent, foreigners will and it does back up my clients’ thesis on how foreign companies are wise to take advantage of other country’s prejudices. The article starts out noting how sexism in Korea creates “obvious opportunity” for those who eschew it:

Working women in South Korea earn 63% of what men do. Not all of this is the result of discrimination, but some must be. South Korean women face social pressure to quit when they have children, making it hard to stay on the career fast track. Many large companies have no women at all in senior jobs.

This creates an obvious opportunity. If female talent is undervalued, it should be plentiful and relatively cheap. Firms that hire more women should reap a competitive advantage. And indeed, there is evidence that one type of employer is doing just that.

Korea (China too) is the ideal place for gender arbitrage by foreign companies because the bulk of the sexism comes in the workplace, not the education system:

Jordan Siegel of Harvard Business School reports that foreign multinationals are recruiting large numbers of educated Korean women. In South Korea, lifting the proportion of a firm’s managers who are female by ten percentage points raises its return on assets by one percentage point, Mr Siegel estimates.

South Korea is the ideal environment for gender arbitrage. The workplace may be sexist, but the education system is extremely meritocratic. Lots of brainy female graduates enter the job market each year. In time their careers are eclipsed by those of men of no greater ability. This makes them poachable. Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank, has more women than men in its office in Seoul.

Only 60% of female South Korean graduates aged between 25 and 64 are in work—making educated South Korean women the most underemployed in OECD countries. That may change, however. Marriage and fertility rates have plunged. There were 10.6 marriages per 1,000 people in 1980, but only 6.2 last year. South Korean women have an average of only 1.15 children, one of the lowest rates anywhere. That has troubling implications for the country, but should help women in the workplace. Firms will have to use all the talent they can find. If they don’t, their rivals will.

I completely buy it.

I previously wrote on sexism in China in a post entitled, Sexism China Style:

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 astutely (albeit 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 really 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 either to be hired or not hired for any 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 a bad thing and that is exactly what we have here. With any sexism on the up side (truly no pun intended) in terms of 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 actually does fairly well. It is not as good as the United States, 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.

So what about sexism in China? How does it compare to other countries? Is it confined only to certain industries? Is it getting better?

I have to say that I have seen virtually none of it in the Chinese law firms with which I have worked, but I hear it is rampant in other industries.  So really, what is going on with sexism in China?

Please speak up.

28 responses to “Sexism in China as Good Thing for Foreign Companies”

  1. Being that I’m not a Chinese woman, I can’t speak to sexism in the workforce here. I’ve worked in two foreign managed business in Beijing, though, and both had a high proportion of female staff. Almost all the staff who have worked at Imports Oriental during my time there have been female. When I was involved in hiring employees, we weren’t specifically seeking females over males, but the best candidates were generally female.

  2. Dan,
    We have discussed this is the past, and my opinion stays pretty much the same – it’s good that these foreign companies are taking the leadership in gender equality in China, obviously I hope that Chinese companies will follow their lead. That said, when you see certain foreign male ‘entrepreneurs’ packing their staff with local women to the virtual exclusion of local men (I think you can guess who I am referring to) then your suspicions are definitely piqued.

  3. Just after reading this I saw “Saving Face in China” in the Dec. 13th New York Times, which quotes someone who claims “It is a fact that the Communist system created an equal playing field for men and women, much more so than elsewhere in Asia and even more equal than in the United States.” I don’t buy it, but there’s at least one a Western woman who believes this.

    • I haven’t read the article yet, but I feel the need to add my interpretation of the sentiment that the Communist system brought more equality for both genders.
      Decades ago, that’s actually true. Most of the general population was completely on board with communism, and Mao wanted to completely abolish traditional Chinese culture. Everything. Instead of slowly targeting to reform elements of Chinese culture like extreme sexism, foot binding, elitist and class stratification, etc etc, he just wanted to get rid of all of it.
      Except trying to radically change EVERYTHING is kind of a horrible idea, especially when culture shapes a person’s very perspective on how the world functions.
      For a few years, China had almost complete gender equality in the workplace and in the social stratosphere. But the problem is that no one can simply change thousands of years of ideas in a few decade, so what Mao did was simply to create a cultural void in addition to a lot of confusion, and I’m of the opinion that what we’re seeing today is still whiplash from what happened decades ago.
      I’m not sure about economic gender equality, but in terms of social/cultural standing, I’m beginning to see some unfortunate trends in how both genders are expected to behave in China.
      Instead of helping to reform China, the “communist” system has only ushered in the extreme reversion to sexism and extreme social stratification without some of the nicer elements of traditional Chinese culture. My homeland is in a pretty precarious situation right now in terms of social unrest and apathy.

  4. Ironically, one of the positive aspects of the Chinese communist society when Mao took over is the equal treatment of men and women. I think that compared to other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea, women in China are more equal to men. The 3 most richest women in the world are from China.
    Josh from the other blog seems to think that China is just as post-industrialized socially and economically as Western Countries like the US when it is not. In the US women gets paid 83 cents of a dollar compared to men. Another story that I heard is that women who are slim and attractive gets paid more than an short ugly one. Don’t forget about the class action lawsuit against Walmart about the unfair pay of women. So sexism is still alive in the US even if it is less overt than China.
    To be fair about the toll booth job, it is an unskilled job, so they can pick up anybody who can look pretty and can smile while they take your toll. I fail to see the difference between someone like her and someone else like a Receptionist in the US who is doing the same. The only difference is that in China there seems to be a lot of attractive females to choose from and there is not as much attractive females who wants to be a receptionist.

  5. I think making the inference of women’s opportunity in China from Korea is wrong. Chinese women have Mao’s blessing with “Women is half the sky” and the numbers do show.
    Half of the world’s richest self-made women are Chinese. World Economic Forum has published a report titled “Women’s Empowerment: Measuring
    the Global Gender Gap” and it ranks China at 33, US at 17, Korea at 54 in term of women’s economic opportunity. Japan ranked somewhere at the bottom at 97.
    Interesting observation about the Japanese and Korean firms in China is that they have more women in management positions then home offices in Tokyo and Seoul.

  6. Tanya,
    I think your last sentence says it all: “When I was involved in hiring employees, we weren’t specifically seeking females over males, but the best candidates were generally female.”
    This perfectly illustrates how foreign companies can benefit from sexism.

  7. Hanmeng,
    I buy it. At least to a large extent. Certainly most Chinese women do not see themselves as second class citizens. Also, I do see China as less sexist than Korea or Japan and that may be due to communism. Of course, it may also be due to other things, seeing as how Singapore and Hong Kong are also less sexist than Korea and Japan and neither of those were/are communistic.

  8. pug_ster,
    I will not for a minute dispute that there is sexism in the U.S. job market as well and that in many respects China is not so bad. But I stick by my thesis, which is that there is a fair amount of employment-based sexism in China and that foreign companies can and do take advantage of that.

  9. David Li,
    I am not making an inference in the sense that I am not saying that because x and y are true in Korea x and y are true in China. I am saying that based on my observations, x and y are true in Korea and from what I see, x and y are also true (though to a lesser extent) in China.

  10. Dan – absolutely. Without planning at all to only hire women, or having a preference for hiring women, by being open to all candidates based on suitability for the job we may be finding wonderful people that other companies have overlooked. A question though – why do you think they are overlooked? If there are companies discriminating based on gender, why do so? What do they think they are gaining? There must be a reason that a male employee is seen as preferable, if well-qualified female applicants are overlooked.

  11. I agree that there are lots of very talented Chinese women in the marketplace and I’m often impressed at the depth of talent and dedication to work.
    Foreign entereprises are probably more open to talented female staff, though Chinese enterprises are not monolithic and plenty also have relatively open HR systems (and plenty don’t). I think overall China much more open to senior female staff than Japan or Korea. The opportunties for ‘abritrage’ likely to be less than in Japan or Korea.
    Yes there are a few sleazy foreign entrepreneurs just as there are a few Chinese. Not anywhere anyone would want to work.
    Recently I’ve taken to giving a slight preference to new male staff just to rebalance our gender ratios. However, overall standards of applications for positions tend to be outstanding so that preference is slight and standards still very high.
    China remains a great place to employ talented staff.

  12. It varies from industry to industry. In law, most of the firms have male rather than female lawyers. Its harder for female lawyers to make it to senior positions. That’s also because more men go into the legal profession than women. The reverse is true in accounting, where women typically dominate in the workforce, at least up until senior management level. That’s because more women than men become accountants. A visit to any mainland PWC or KPMG office will reveal a far more feminine workforce than a typical law firm. That’s not sexism in itself, its a result of the Chinese education system that encourages certain sexes enter specific industries.

  13. I don’t know about the workplace, but I can tell you that most of my best students are women, while the men generally don’t do as well in class. That’s not about raw talent, but attitude, effort and workrate. Quite simply, the women work harder than the men. Now that is a gross generalisation and most certainly can not be applied to individuals, but that is the general situation I observe (although it should be said that the opposite is true of my current crop of first year students). I could introduce you to quite a few highly talented young men who are simply too lazy to develop their potential to the same extent as their female classmates. That would seem to tie in with Tanya’s observation that the best candidates are generally women.
    One theory bandied about to explain this phenomenon is that the traditional Chinese preference for boys means the boys grow up with everything handed to them on a silver platter, and so never understand the need to work, while the girls grow up understanding that anything they may want in life they will have to work for. I have no idea how much truth there is to that, and the situation I observe is far more complex, but that’s the theory.
    Tangentially related: Early in the semester I listened in to a Hui male student from Ningxia describing to a Han female student from Dalian how many of his female Hui middle school classmates were long since married and making babies – given his youth, that couldn’t be in strict adherence to China’s marriage law. But it is perhaps a real-life example of how many of the traditional attitudes to gender are alive and well. Sure, Communism did largely level the playing field, but the persistance of traditional attitudes and the reappearance since Reform and Opening Up of phenomena such as prostitution and concubinage and the frequently reported added difficulty female graduates have in finding jobs (because they’re just going to get married and have a baby, then you’ve got to go through the hassle of replacing them while they’re on maternity leave (and keep paying them while they’re taking care of baby) and take days off whenever the baby’s sick….. so just save yourself some hassle and hire men) suggest that in some respects, women’s status in Chinese society has taken a few hits over the last 30-odd years.
    As for Mary Shi’s “its a result of the Chinese education system that encourages certain sexes enter specific industries.”, I personally don’t see any difference between China and the rest of the world. In my experience, fields that are traditionally female-dominated where I come from are female-dominated here, and fields that are traditionally male-dominated where I come from are male-dominated here.

  14. When I used to bring Korean companies to see our operation in China, invariably only male executives were sent over. They were always taken aback to have to deal with our female Chinese senior staffers, who were usually women in their late 30’s, and who would have already been put out to pasture if they were working for a Korean company. The fact that these women were fully qualified for senior management positions and likely to be with the company for the foreseeable future was not lost on our visitors from the Hermit Kingdom.
    The bonus aspect for MNC’s hiring qualified women in Korea is that unlike their male counterparts, they don’t live on a steady diet of soju and samgyeop-sal, and are generally good-to-go and ready for work at full capacity each and every day. And their classmate networks from university are every bit as good. Foreign companies operating in Korea usually avoid all of the hard drinking, late nights, and useless make-work that characterizes most of Korean corporate culture, and this will also bring them loyalty from women who wish to be taken seriously and have some sort of normal life.

  15. The more that can be done to expose the China firms and individuals like FOARP mentioned who indulge in sexist recruitment practices the better. If China Law Blog had a “ChinaLawWikileaks” section then the better it would be to clean up the industry and promote hard working China experts like Dan from all the foreign lawyers who think they know what they’re doing in China just because they live there. Most of the ones I met act as salesmen then get their Chinese staff do all the work. Foreign law and tax firms almost using local employees as slaves. If China Law Blog could “out” a few people the better.Dans approach is what we need.

  16. I used to believe in hiring women and the disabled in China.
    I hired women (against male Chinese managers’ advice) and then had to deal with key staff who took off almost a year for pregnancy and childbirth while we still had to pay them.
    I hired a woman with a bad leg from childhood polio. She tripped over an electric cord that was UNDER a carpet – a bump under a centimeter in height (where’s Osha when you need them?) – and broke her leg in 3 places. She was out 6 months and we also had to pay her as well as cover medical costs that were not covered by insurance and use admin staff to make sure hospital issues were taken care of.
    I came to the reluctant confusion that many of these prejudices are based on reality.

  17. Have to say just how strongly I disagree with M.
    First up, there are many countries in the world where 9 months or more paid maternity leave is a legal right, and even if you find this objectionable, it is a definite biological necessity. There is simply no justification for discriminating against female employees on the grounds that they may become pregnant, nor is it right that an employer should be able to dismiss a woman merely because when is going to have a child. Child-birth is a necessity of human society, and discrimination against women on the grounds that they might have a child is despicable.
    Secondly, it is a settled principle of law in many countries that you take your victims as you find them – she is not to blame for having had polio. Your employee, who suffered injury whilst on company property, did not ask to have her leg broken. You could, had you so wished, have refused to pay the medical bills, if you really believed that it was not right for you to pay. Can I therefore infer from the fact that you did pay her bills that you did not believe that she caused her injury. And surely your objection here is to the fact that she had childhood polio – and not that she was female.
    As to your final sentence, I can only suggest that if even China is not misogynistic enough for you then perhaps you should try somewhere more suited to your particular attitudes – how about Saudi Arabia?

  18. Most of the people studying Chinese with me at Donghua University were Korean, and most of them were women. When asked, they usually said that they found employment opportunities to be better in China, even with the local branches of Korean firms. The Korean men in the class were often middle-aged execs, entrepreneurs or managers, guys sent over by their companies, while the women were young and worried about/planning for their future.
    Japan seems to have a bad reputation for workplace sexism among Chinese women, anecdotally. How much of this is due to pervasive Chinese stereotypes about Japan is difficult to gauge.
    Incidentally, among (non-white) African men, among N.E. Asian countries, China is seen as a place where you have a lot of room for growth professionally. I realize that is a big, sweeping generalization, but I am comfortable saying it. This is especially among Nigerians, who make up the majority of African immigrants.
    As a ethnic minority myself, in China’s growth I feel/sense echoes of previous American frontier enthusiasm for the future but with a modern twist; people who might feel (to some degree) shut out in their own country look to China as a boom that you can ride – at least among Asian countries. That may change to include all countries, I suspect.

  19. I think Korea is far worse than China. I have worked in both countries as a caucasian foreign female and witnessed discrimination in Korea that has to win hands down across Asia. What Korean men think of Korean women generally is pretty bad (they are only baby/home making machines) but in the workplace they don’t stand a chance. China on the other hand is quite balanced in my experience.

  20. I have two other theories.
    1) The foreign business Dan referred here are mostly either in service industry or their headquaters (I believe). The female employee’s percentage is much higher in Chinese companiese in the same category.
    2) The women employee are perceved more ‘stable’ than male employee. The foreign business are also perceived ‘safer’ choice than a local Chinese company. This two way ‘stable’ (or safer) perception makes more female employee working in a foreign business very natually.

  21. FORAP,
    The correct policy solution to women going on maternity leave and therefore costing lots more than a male staff (if a female staffer works for 2 years at your firm and is off for six months that’s 25% of the time you’re paying someone not to be there – significant for many businesses) is to balance maternity and paternity leave. Paternity leave here is 7 days – if it were the same (or very close) to maternity leave then the bias would go away (in fact, the bias would be against men as you can’t tell if a man’s wife is pregnant by looking at his stomach).

  22. I have to disagree with Mary Shi that one reason for fewer women working as partners in law firms in China is due to the fact that law schools are male dominated in China. Law schools don’t publish official statistics in China, but law is considered a “humanities” major, which generally tends to have more female than male students in China. Talking to friends who attended Peking University for law, in the law school in 2007 the ratio of female to male students was 2:1, and in 2010 it was 5:3.

  23. Yes, China is sexist.  As a woman, who recently travelled to China to be a speaker at a technology exhibit sponsored by a fairly large Chinese university, I was astonished by a couple of things.  First of all:  I was the only woman speaker on the masthead… even though there were other women participating in the event.  Second:  all the technology projects on display (that were Chinese) were developed by males.  Third:  All the staff (the interns actually doing the work of setup and teardown) were female.  Fourth: I was asked to introduce my project by Chinese television camera people as if I were a ‘waitress.’  Fifth: It was commonly assumed that since my technology project had an educational spin– that I must be an elementary school teacher.
    Sixth:  Actual conversations with the interns revealed that they were desperate to get out of their predestined educational paths… and mostly the way out was learning English so they might work for a less-discriminatory foreign firm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *