Women workers in China standing up to discrimination

In the United States, the “war on women” often garners banner headlines as activists try to halt the alarming rollback of women’s rights. In China, the erosion of women’s rights has been quieter but in many ways just as worrying, as Didi Kirtsten Tatlow pointed out in the New York Times on 6 March.

And in response, women in China too are increasingly willing to stand up to widespread and widely-accepted discrimination in the workplace and society in general. In February, a group of female college students “occupied” men’s toilets in the southern city of Guangzhou to protest the lack of public bathrooms for women. The stunt clearly touched a nerve because the “occupy” movement went viral on weibo almost instantaneously.

Then, on International Women’s Day last month, an office worker in Guangdong filed a lawsuit against her former employer for terminating her employment while she was on maternity leave.  While similar cases have been heard by labour dispute arbitration committees in the province, this was the first time a gender discrimination case had reached the courts.

Two weeks later, anti-discrimination activists published an open letter to the Chinese government demanding the elimination or at least revision of provisions that mandate gynaecological examinations of women applying for positions in the civil service. The activists argued that the examinations were discriminatory and an invasion of privacy. They pointed out moreover that details of an applicant’s menstrual cycle etc. should have no bearing on her ability to do her job.

These moves, while encouraging, also reveal the extent to which discrimination still exists in the workplace, especially in white-collar professions where there is a high demand for and a relatively limited supply of well-paid positions with job security and good prospects. As such employers often feel they can pick and choose which employees they want to hire or fire without any repercussions.

Ms Li (a pseudonym), for example, was employed as a translator at a Taiwanese apparel company in Guangzhou. She started working in July 2010, and discovered she was pregnant a few months later. She applied for and was eventually granted maternity leave on 11 April 2011 after arranging for someone to cover for her.

But not long after giving birth to a baby girl in May, Ms Li received a notice of dismissal from her employer. She attempted to go back to work but was refused entry to the office building. She decided to sue, and on 8 March 2012 filed a lawsuit against her former employer demanding a public apology and 50,000 yuan in compensation for emotional distress.  The case has not yet been heard.

Civil service jobs are particularly sought after and this unfortunately leads to greater acceptance of discriminatory and invasive practices such as gynaecological examinations for applicants. But, as anti-discrimination campaign group Yirenping pointed out in its letter to the government:

Such examinations are of little value in the recruitment of civil servants. Moreover, they can violate women’s privacy and dignity, and lead to discrimination against women. We believe that since hiring civil servants is the duty of government, the government itself should take the lead in respecting candidates’ privacy and dignity, including the privacy and dignity of women.

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