In China, one of the most significant challenges many female professionals will face is that getting pregnant could mean losing their job. Even worse, if they dare to speak up and protest, they are likely to be publicly judged and criticised.
On paper at least, China has set up laws and regulations to prohibit gender discrimination in the workplace. Article 42 of China’s Labour Law prohibits the unilateral termination of the labour contract of a pregnant or nursing employee. China has also established Special Rules on labour protection for female employees, which emphasise women’s rights in the workplace that include 98 days of maternity leave. Employers are also required to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of pregnant or nursing employees.
Despite or perhaps because of these regulations, having children can still be a terrible career move. Often a pregnancy is often enough to rule a woman out of winning a position she has applied for. There is also a tacit acknowledgement between Chinese employers and employees that a company will not preserve jobs for women on maternity leave. In many Western nations, employees are entitled to come back to the position they had before taking maternity or paternity leave. In China, there is no such guarantee. Sometimes, this means a woman may need to submit her resignation letter with her maternity leave request form.
This reality – and the relevant prevailing public attitudes – were illustrated recently with the news about a woman surnamed Li who told her employer she was pregnant a week after she joined the company. In the subsequent week, Ms Li was demoted from her position. We don’t know what the job involved, but according to the company involved, 'her condition' was unsuitable for the work, and she would not be able to carry out her duties because of her pregnancy. Ultimately, Ms Li lost her job. The company’s argument for firing Ms Li was that she had made an unacceptable mistake in her work. In response, Ms Li lodged an unfair dismissal complaint to the local Arbitration Commission, which ruled in her favour and ordered the company to continue its contract with Ms Li.
Rather than taking issue with the actions of Ms Li's employer, the overwhelming response from Chinese netizens was to criticize Ms Li for not disclosing her pregnancy during her job interview. The topic '#a woman got fired for lying pregnancy#' quickly became one of the most popular on China’s micro-blogging platform Weibo. Many Weibo users think that Ms Li’s 'dishonesty' will actually have a detrimental impact on the employment opportunities for other Chinese women in the future. For example, one noted that 'this kind of woman makes it harder for Chinese females to get a job'. This comment received more than 6000 ‘likes’.
Even though employers are fully aware that it is unlawful to penalise women for having children, many of them would prefer not take the 'risk' of hiring someone who could potentially need to take leave for several months.
As a result, when a Chinese woman goes for an interview, her professional skills are not necessarily as important as her marriage and fertility status. An employer is very likely to ask a female job candidate whether she is married or whether she has any plans to have children. Answers to those questions can be decisive factors in whether she will get the job. This is widely known. And while most on Weibo slammed Ms Li, a few had sympathy for her dilemma. As one Weibo user noted: 'what else can she do other than lie? If she told the truth, it is almost certain that she would not get the job.'
While there are ways for women to seek redress when they have been the victims of discrimination, cultural norms often mean they choose not to do so. One example of these cultural barriers is the Chinese cultural notion of 'miàn zi' (to save face; to protect one’s reputation and dignity). In the professional sphere, it is important to 'give' your bosses and colleagues 'face'. Not doing so means you will be considered difficult to work with. For this reason, most prefer to avoid conflict, especially in public. As a result, very few Chinese women would take action against discriminating employers.
In this regard, Ms Li was an exception. And while she won her arbitration case, there is no guarantee of a happy ending. As one netizen commented, 'her employer and colleagues must hate her so much now. Even if she had won the case, I doubt that she could happily work in the company in the future. She may need to resign after all these dramas.'
China is now facing demographic challenges that risk damaging its economic growth and could have potential to lead to social problems in the future. As part of its response to the problems of an ageing population, the government has relaxed its one-child policy and promoted a second-child policy. However, as one angry Chinese mother commented on Weibo in relation to Ms Li’s case, 'now [China] wants us to have a second child. Have you ever thought about the problems Chinese female professionals face in our society before bringing in this policy?'
Efforts to outlaw gender bias have done little to chip away at discriminatory practices in China. Add in the difficulties many parents face in finding reliable childcare, and it’s clear China needs to do more to address the needs of working parents and, in particular, to protect women’s rights in the workplace, before asking them to have more babies.