China Tech Workers Wanted: Women Need Not Apply

By Li Yuan Features Dow Jones Newswires

China's tech industry has long taken Silicon Valley's lead, from products to business models to office design. But it has paid scant attention to the scandals that have rocked Silicon Valley this year, based on allegations of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

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In the U.S., large companies have been caught up in the furor, from allegations of frat-house culture at Uber Technologies Co. to a debate about women's roles in tech sparked by a software engineer at Alphabet Inc.'s Google. Separately, there has been a spate of resignations at venture-capital firms over alleged sexual harassment.

The torrent of news is barely registering as water-cooler talk in China. The indifference stems from the fact that such problems are so prevalent in Chinese society, many people don't recognize certain behavior amounts to sexual harassment or discrimination, which is illegal in China--though generally the laws aren't policed. Job ads sometimes say only men need apply.

Take the suggestion by the now-fired Google engineer that men are genetically better at tech jobs. Such concepts are widespread in China: Parents often tell their daughters they won't be good at math or physics or coding. And just like in the U.S., some Chinese companies are reluctant to hire or promote women because of concerns about pregnancy and child rearing, employee advocates say. About 20% of engineers in China's internet and telecommunications industries are women, according to Boss Zhipin, a Beijing-based online recruiting company.

And there's a pay gap as well. Women were paid 30% less than men in China's internet industry last year, ranking among the most discriminatory lines of work with medicine, media and entertainment, according to Boss Zhipin, which surveyed more than 365,000 pay samples nationwide.

Of the 24 board members at China's big three internet companies-- Baidu Inc., Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd.--only one is a woman. That's Wan Ling Martello at Alibaba, the Nestlé SA executive who also sits on Uber's board.

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China's tech industry needs to confront the lack of opportunities for women because, as my colleague Christopher Mims argues, it's good business to have leadership diversity.

The industry and its leaders need to acknowledge that gender discrimination and sexual harassment are real. I spoke to women in China's tech industry and they revealed recurring problems.

Even though China has comprehensive labor and women's-rights laws, enforcement is spotty at best.

As a result, about 22% of women have experienced severe or very severe discrimination when seeking employment, according to Zhaopin Ltd., an online recruiter. It surveyed nearly 130,000 people in 2017. That percentage rose to about 43% for women with graduate degrees.

When Qiao Mingzhi, a top student in her 197-member automation class, went to a recruiting event two years ago, a tech company refused to take her résumé. She was told it was because she is a woman. She now works for a petrochemical company.

A trawl through job listings on Boss Zhipin, the recruitment site, showed some tech companies state explicitly that positions are just for men.

An e-commerce marketing job at NetEase Inc., one of the largest internet companies in China, recently stated that only male candidates need to apply because "the job is tough and stressful."

Ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing Technology Co. recently said it wanted men only when advertising two web engineer jobs and a customer-operations position. Meituan-Dianping, a group-buying website, advertised a client-operations director position by saying it preferred men.

A Didi spokeswoman said some jobs require employees to lift heavy servers and machinery, so they fall into categories that Chinese laws deem inappropriate for women. She added that the company is revisiting those requirements. Didi and Meituan-Dianping removed or amended listings to withdraw the male-only specifications after being contacted by The Wall Street Journal; Meituan said it is an equal-opportunity employer.

NetEase didn't respond to requests for comment, though it changed its posting's language to delete its men-only call after being contacted by the Journal.

Gender discrimination isn't just a problem for junior employees. Wang Yijie moved back to Beijing in 2015 to co-found data security startup Cloudfort Inc. after spending 16 years in Silicon Valley working as a software engineer and senior business-development executive.

When she meets potential investors, she says, they regularly pepper her with questions that her two male co-founders would never have to answer. These include: "Does your husband approve of you starting a business?" and "How are you going to balance work and life?" A couple of potential backers also told her they liked her project but they don't invest in companies founded by women, she said.

Lewd jokes in Chinese offices are so commonplace that it's tough for women to escape, says Feng Yuan, the founder of women's-rights nonprofit Equality. Many women don't know that harassment, as legally defined in China, can be verbal as well as physical, and that it doesn't have to be targeted at an individual, she says.

A midlevel executive in her mid 30s at one of China's leading startups said she used to tell male colleagues she didn't like them telling sexual jokes in front of her. Her confrontation got her labeled as "difficult," she says.

Chinese law doesn't clearly define clearly how victims can seek redress and what responsibilities employers have when sexual harassment occurs, said Ms. Feng, the activist. So it is up to companies to make sure their employees are empowered. Action by a top management can make a difference.

Jane Sun, co-founder of online booking site Ctrip.com International Ltd., has set up areas for pregnant women to lie down and they can expense daily commutes, in addition to bonuses and subsidies for childbirth.

Didi's President Jean Liu started a women's initiative to train future leaders at the company.

But as Didi's man-only job postings show, even with a woman at the top, much needs to be done to overhaul a culture that is deeply rooted not only in the tech industry, but Chinese society as well.

Write to Li Yuan at li.yuan@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 17, 2017 08:43 ET (12:43 GMT)