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Female Discrimination in China
by Edita N. Laurel, M.A., CIS


Female Expatriates

There are thousands of American companies that do business in China. There are also thousands of expatriates from the U.S. that are being sent to that country. Of the thousands of expatriates that the United States is sending, just a few – about 17 percent are females. That is not a big number, but big enough to worry about the gender discrimination that they are going to face in a country known to have centuries’ old and ongoing discrimination against women.

Results of Studies of Amnesty International

Great Wall of China/

Every year, Amnesty International provides every country
a study and findings of the country’s human rights violations. In 2008, the agency reported the following (the 2009 and 2010 did not mention gender discrimination in their report): • The proportion of women to men declines at each educational tier, with women comprising some 25% of undergraduates in universities. • Those institutions of higher education that have a large proportion of female applicants, such as foreign language institutes, have been known to require higher entrance exam grades from women.• Although China has a law mandating compulsory primary education, increasing numbers of rural girls are not being sent to school. Rural parents often do not want to "waste" money on school fees for girls who will "belong" to another family when they marry. According to official statistics, about 70% of illiterates in China are female. (Amnesty International, 2008).

Observations while in China

China Pond with Koi Forbidden City

My recent trip to China is a real eye opener. The cultural exposition that I encountered answered some of the questions, which, if not for the trip, would have just remained unanswered. A lot of the knowledge I have about China were from “filtered” sources and not first hand knowledge. So, seeing, observing, and being exposed to China’s culture, scenes, and other important knowledge, first hand, was comforting and intellectually filling. Some of the examples of lingering questions I had were about men versus women, and whether the women were really treated inferior to men; what kinds of jobs that women hold in China; whether Chinese practice equal opportunity in employment now that there are thousands of American and European companies have their branches there. At first look in and around Shanghai and Beijing, it seemed like males and females have access to equal opportunities. For example, I did not expect to see female guards at the Great Wall of China. I did not expect to be toured by a female operations manager at SunJoy Factory. I was surprised that our escort at Shanghai Port was a female. For me, all these tell me that women are now enjoying freedom to choose the kind of work that they chose to do. It is far from what they have experienced for centuries. At first glance, one could say that females are now enjoying the status and benefits of being in a corporate or other employment arena. But looks can be deceiving. In reality, however my research and readings exposed a grim fact: that China continues to be a country where discrimination against females is not only continuing, but also “pervasive” and “wide-spread”. It is important therefore, that the leaders of U.S. companies do something to protect our female expatriates there.

Centuries’ Old Beliefs about Women

For centuries, there has been a great disparity in how males and females are treated in China. This preferential treatment of males starts as soon the male babies are born. Males, especially the first born, are highly-prized; female babies are not. The great leader of China, Mao, had a proverb: “women hold half of the sky”. For me, it indicated that he believed that women are or should be equal to men. In actuality, however, females are treated less favorably – before, during, and after his time. And it is continuing. Although the females now have access to various employment opportunities, females are still considered to be “inferior” in the minds of Chinese men.

There have been dramatic changes in social mobility, employment choices, personal lifestyles, family structures, and the sense of individual opportunity. However, discrimination in many forms has become more widespread. The Yale Law School publication reported that in spite of the economic opportunities in China, women complain that they were denied jobs because of their sex; that they are paid less for doing more; and that, when bad times hit, they are the first to be let go. Migrant workers from China’s countryside (who make up a significant percentage of China’s urban workforce) complain that they are victims of pervasive discrimination. (Yale Report, 2008).
The Yale publication further reports that younger generation of females entering the workforce reported serious gender discrimination. In 2002 a female college students' job-fair in Beijing was cancelled because only five of five hundred companies invited accepted the invitation. Many companies said they were 'not interested' in hiring female graduates. A survey conducted by the Women's Federation in Jiangsu Province in 2002 showed that out of 1,100 college graduates surveyed 80 percent of female graduates experienced gender discrimination during their job searches, and 34.3 percent experienced multiple rejections by potential employers. The same survey also showed that the employment rate of male graduates with same qualifications was 8 percent higher than that of the female graduates, and that the male graduates usually find better jobs with higher salary than female graduates (Yale Report, 2008).

Human Rights Violations

Is China doing something about the situation?

Because of the pressure from outside world, in 2005, China announced in its White Paper on Gender Equality, that the country has developed a legal system that abolishes legal discrimination (Yang, 2009). However, studies have shown that although the number of working women substantially went up, the laws have not totally changed the centuries’ old cultural belief and practice of discriminating against them (Yang, 2009). For years, China has been trying to abolish legal discrimination against women. The futile attempt was started in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Decades after the first attempt, the centuries’ old cultural belief and practice of discriminating against females is continuing to exist. The number one reason cited for the unsuccessful attempts to outlaw illegal discrimination against women is that there are really “no universally accepted legal definitions of discrimination or gender discrimination in China” (Yang, 2009). Because of that, “the constitutional principle of gender equality and current equality legislations are hard to enforce” (Yang, 2009).

The Effect of Gender Discrimination on U.S. Expatriates

Most managerial positions in China are held by men; the lower positions are held mostly by women. Because of that, females, not only Chinese, but also females from other parts of the world, are being subjected, to unfavorable treatment when they come to China to work as supervisors or managers. The non-favorable treatment usually comes from the Chinese men. This creates problems and challenges for female expatriates. There were reports that some male subordinates refuse to follow orders from female supervisors and/or managers from the United States. The stereotyped beliefs and prejudice against American females is creating a great challenge for female expatriates who work in China and may be attributed to a low number of female expatriates working there.According to a report reported by one of the China trip attendees, the most recent number of female expatriates is only 16%. There is a 2 percent reduction from the figures from Mercer in 2008 and by SHRM in 2009. (Yang, 2009). That reduction in number is very alarming. The number of female expatriates is really becoming scarce.Looking at the results of studies about gender discrimination in China from 2006 through today, nothing has changed. Burnett reported that a study conducted in 2006 by the All-China Women Federation of Trade Union (ACFTU) showed that “sex discrimination is the norm in today’s workplace” (Burnett, 2010). That was in 2006. In 2010, Burnett reported that women manager expatriates continued to be seen less favorably by Chinese male subordinates (Burnett, 2010). In addition, authors Yang and Li (2009) reported that in spite of the outlaw of gender discrimination, new forms of sex discrimination have emerged: some in subtle ways, often in disguising as new laws that protect women (Yang, 2009). So, looking at the reports of various studies done, despite the advances in China, sex-stereotyping and prejudice against females continues, and that managerial position is continued to be perceived as a male occupation.

One Hundred Percent Support Needed

Female expatriates have a difficult and trying time, initially in their own country, during the selection process for international assignment, and secondly when they start working in China. An article in the SHRM Magazine reported that, according to a survey conducted by Mercer, an international consultancy agency, while leaders of U.S. companies are trying to be diverse, about 70 percent don’t have a clear strategy for developing female leaders. The survey cited that about 43 percents of the 542 companies surveyed don’t offer any activities or programs aimed at female leaders. Further, it found that while 23 percent offer some kind of programs, only about 19 percent track the progress of women. (SHRM Magazine, 2010).

Lack of Support: No. 1 Reason

The number one reason reported problem by female expatriates during their international assignment was the lack of organizational support from their employer in the United States. The number two reason is male leaders’ prejudice. A number of research conducted revealed that men believed that females are qualified for career development in domestic positions, but are not as competent for international assignment. These reports echo the previous reports that I have read that scarcity of female expatriates is attributed to three principal causes: foreigners' prejudice, corporate resistance, and female managers’ disinterest. Recent research has also found that female expatriates do not have a lot of social network support from other expatriates. This was reported by a current female expatriate who lives and works in China (Larson-Wang, 2011). So, here, it shows that even male expatriates show prejudice against women being sent to international assignment.Ensuring the Success of our Female Expatriates As U.S. managers, we have a duty and responsibility to ensure the success of our female expatriates in their global assignment. We need to conduct our selection process for international assignment as fairly and carefully as possible. There is an unfounded belief that females prefer to stay home than accept an international assignment. Studies showed that it is not so; and proved that women, as well as men, are willing to accept international assignments in the absence of young children. (Yang, 2009). Women who wish to succeed as leaders or managers in China must overcome stereotypical limitations that they will be facing as female expatriate leaders. The best thing we could offer them is knowledge. U.S. female expatriates’ knowledge of Chinese culture, why and how the prejudice and stereotyping started, can help them understand and anticipate obstacles they will sure be facing in China. Once they have the knowledge of what to expect when they get there, the challenges would not be that much a surprise. (Hutchings, 2008). Olsen and Martins also reported that expatriates’ inability to adjust is the number one cause of failure in international assignments. (Olsen & Martins, 2009). As managers in the United States, our role is to make sure that our female – and male employees are aware that gender discrimination in China is real and pervasive, but that support is there for them. We need to emphasize that the U.S. company will ensure that the laws that protect them in the U.S. will be protecting them in China, or whatever part of the world they will be assigned. They need to realize the scope and challenges of the assignment before they commit. Every effort should be made to at least try to select the best person for the position. Someone that is willing to, and can adapt and adjust to the situation would be the best candidate. Being flexible and being able to adjust are very important traits in any international assignment, not only for females, but also for males. 

Protection from Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination is an issue that should not be ignored. The number reason is - because it is against the law. Discrimination against a person because of his/her gender is unlawful and protected by Chapter VII of Equal Employment Opportunities law. Federal laws provide for a variety of penalties for organizations (or persons in China) that violate these laws. Any employees of the MNC – anywhere in the world - who violate this law – even in China – are subject to penalties. Violations of these laws can result in significant litigation costs, negative press, and lower employee morale (Mello, 2006). Any U.S. companies with branch in China and employing U.S. citizens there need to abide by this and other laws that govern the companies headquartered in the U.S.

Here are some of the U.S. laws that govern the employees of MNC’s and expatriates in China:

► Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964► Sarbanes-Oxley Act► American with Disabilities Act (ADA)► Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)► Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Cooperation from China Managers Needed

We are also aware that the Chinese people do things differently; they may be resistant to U.S. laws, and that they have their own “interpretation” of the gender discrimination laws. Caution should be exercised therefore, when enforcing these laws. Some of the Chinese customs, traditions and norms are still being practiced, in spite of the laws that affect our expatriates there. China can also be stubborn in protecting their policies. Anyone can see this in their attitude about the “one child policy”, and their continuous copyright infringement. The “one child policy” has caused China’s population to be manageable – and they saw a number of good benefits when they implemented it. (Haugen 2006). They have the same justification about the intellectual property piracy. (Haugen, 2006). China seems to have a justification for any action that they take, even though those actions cause harm to their people. The same is true about their attitude about discriminating against women. They justify this as a part of the Chinese culture or the “norm”.Regardless of what China’s justifications may be, it is important that we managers convey the importance of compliance in gender discrimination laws. U.S. companies need to remind them, in a tactful way, that equal treatment of men and women is the law that is followed in the U.S. and that the same laws follow the U.S. employee anywhere she goes. Every employee employed by the U.S. company needs to go through training about our U.S. laws on equal employment and harassment. Shell Company found that building personal relationships is a key in overcoming any global cultural differences. This company found that the perceptions of “us versus them” can likely be overcome by building personal relationships (Mello, 2006). Being in China, a country with so much human right violations and stubborn attitude about Western pressures, personal relationships are very important. China should realize that the MNC’s are, for a major part, responsible for the economic development that they enjoy. It is not only U.S. that benefits from the MNC’s presence there. Both countries do.

Preparing the Expatriates

Preparing the female employee for international assignment ensures that she can face the challenges of gender discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice in China. Mathis and Jackson suggested ways on how to be successful in employee selection for global assignment:

(1) Cultural Adjustment. The expatriate needs to be educated on anything and everything about China’s culture, norms, traditions, and customs. This included giving the expatriate time to visit China for cultural assimilation; (2) Organizational Knowledge. The expatriate need to know everything about the company and the organization and how it operates;(3) Personal Characteristics. There are some personal characteristics that are excellent for home assignment, but not for global assignments;(4) Communication Skills. The ability of the expatriate to be able to communicate orally in the native language is one of the keys to success. The expatriate can take lessons on how to speak the Chinese language.(5) Personal and Family Concerns. The expatriate needs to have support from the family. This is the number one reason for declining an international assignment. (Mathis & Jackson, 2006). The expatriate family’s and children’s support while on assignment have a significant influence on their expatriate social support and networking abilities. (Yang 2009).Social Support Because of the stereotyping and prejudice against American women, our female expatriates can feel isolated and depressed. According to a female expatriate, Larson- Wang, “Chinese women have grown up with the remnants of Confucianism creating barriers that modern society has tried hard to knock down”, and “ even for foreign women, who are not as affected by Chinese societal issues as local women, stepping into this environment can be a difficult experience” (Larson-Wang, 2011). Most of her fellow expatriates are males so she said that there’s a shortage of girlfriends to chat with. Further, she states that “dating can be a bit of a minefield, with male expatriates usually more interested in local women”; and that relationship with local men bring their own set of challenges. To top it off, she states, “Chinese society has certain misconceptions about Western women which can affect how we’re viewed professionally as well as in social settings”. Larson-Wang continued that “the world of expatriates in China can be a bit of a boys’ club, and it can be hard for a woman to find her place”. (Larson-Wang, 2011).


For more than two decades, China has been progressing due to the business deals from Western companies. In spite of China’s attempt to change the employment laws, the centuries’ old culture of stereotyping, prejudice and discriminating against women still prevails. Gender discrimination is continuing and has not changed. As China continues to advance economically with the help of its Western partners, it is important that it strives to maintain a workplace that is free of sex and gender discrimination, no matter how difficult it is, no matter how the wrong beliefs against women are so deeply ingrained in their culture. China should be flexible and adopt the foreign countries’ employment and other laws in dealing with the inequality in employment, especially when they are dealing with foreign companies and employees. Back in the MNC’s country, expatriates and human resource departments companies need to be ready for the challenges that the gender discrimination in China could create. They need to be always aware and cognizant of the problem, and be aware China has a different meaning and definition of “gender discrimination”. In the U.S., gender discrimination is illegal. It is a law. A law, which, when violated can have significant and profound consequences to the companies and employees involved. For U.S. based firms, the assignment of women and members of the racial/ethnic minorities to international assignments involves complying with U.S. EEO regulations and laws. Also, most U.S. EEO regulations and laws do apply to foreign-owned firms operating in the U.S. (Jackson & Mathis, 2006). Multi-national corporations should, in their strategic planning, include developing a strong ethical culture for both domestic and expatriate employees. By doing so, the employees, both here and in international assignment will be aware of the companies’ emphasis on ethics, which will hopefully make the employees conduct themselves in an ethical manner, in selection of female expatriates, in making the expatriate assignments diverse, and in making sure that the expatriates assigned in foreign countries are supported one hundred percent against any and such gender discrimination and other unlawful employment issues. Leaders of these multinational companies should encourage open communication, ethical culture, and good personal relationships. Trainings should be conducted world-wide – for all employees of the company. After all, companies whose leaders encourage open communication deliver shareholder returns that average five percent higher than their competitors’ returns. (Meinert, 2010). In the meantime, we can only hope, wait and see that someday, Mao’s proverb of “women hold up half the sky” will not just be a proverb, but will be a reality.


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