April 27, 2018
By Roberta Rincón, Ph.D., Manager of Research, SWE
The New York Times published an article earlier this week on gender bias and discrimination in the Chinese workplace, highlighting its prevalence in the tech industry. Focusing on one woman’s position as a “programmer motivator,” the article provided a glimpse into the gender discrimination that prevents the gender gap from closing in a country where men far outnumber women.
Shen Yue, the woman interviewed for The New York Times story, is a 25-year-old with a civil engineering degree. As a programmer motivator, her job is to “charm socially awkward programmers and give relaxing massages.” Ms. Yue said that she does not consider her job to be sexist. But consider the qualifications that the human resources executive indicated were necessary to be considered for the position: She must be attractive, having “five facial features that must definitely be in their proper order,” speak in a gentle way, have a contagious laugh, be able to apply simple makeup, and be taller than 5 feet 2 inches.
A recent report from Human Rights Watch looked at over 36,000 job advertisements posted online between 2013 and 2018 on Chinese company websites and on social media. They discovered that many of the ads clearly state a preference for male applicants, while others require women to have certain physical attributes that are irrelevant to the skills required for the position. Still others advertise the attractiveness of their female employees to recruit male applicants, with one company posting photos of young female employees and describing them as “late night benefits.” Hiring discrimination is one reason why the gender gap is increasing in China, leading to a drop in female labor force participation and an increasing gender pay gap. As a result, China’s gender parity ranking has fallen from 63rdto 100thsince 2006.
As The New York Times article shows, as much attention as there is being paid right now to gender discrimination in the U.S., this is a global issue. It may seem strange to hear that women like Ms. Yue do not see the sexism and discrimination that many of us view from the outside looking in, but we must acknowledge that gender discrimination is often interwoven into cultural norms. For example, “booth babes” or promotional models are still in use by many tech companies at large U.S. trade shows to attract interest from conference goers in a male-dominated industry. While the use of such promotions is seeing some pushback, there are still many who do not see an issue with using women in such ways. This can make for a very uncomfortable atmosphere for many professional women attending such events.
For women working in male-dominated industries, research has shown that women and men are not treated equally. Biases and discrimination are reducing women’s access to advancement and leadership opportunities. SWE’s own research has highlighted the challenges that women in engineering in the U.S. face, including biases in hiring, promotion, and pay decisions. Nearly one-third of respondents to SWE's study, Climate Control: Gender and Racial Bias in Engineering, offered comments, many of which provided examples of bias they’ve experienced first-hand.
The survey found that women and engineers of color were more likely than white men to report doing more “office housework” such as finding a time everyone can meet, taking notes and planning office parties. “Just last year they hired a new female and one of the managers was telling me how happy they were about hiring her because she really clean(s) up after the guys and keeps the lab tidy,” said a white woman survey respondent.
Efforts such as those by the #TimesUp movement, which is focused on addressing sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace, are battling the cultural norms that make such activities acceptable. Continued attention to the existence of unfair and unacceptable treatment of women will help to close gender gaps. Although laws may exist in countries like the U.S. and China that prohibit gender discrimination in the workplace, stronger accountability and enforcement are needed for real change to occur.