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Protocol | China

Misogyny at Alibaba and Baidu: The struggle of China’s female tech execs

It turns out getting rid of misogyny in Chinese tech isn't just a numbers game.

Misogyny at Alibaba and Baidu: The struggle of China’s female tech execs

Chinese tech companies that claim to value female empowerment may act differently behind closed doors.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Getty Images

A woman we'll call Fan had heard about the men of Alibaba before she joined its high-profile affiliate about three years ago. Some of them were "greasy," she said, to use a Chinese term often describing middle-aged men with poor boundaries. Fan tells Protocol that lewd conversations were omnipresent at team meetings and private events, and even women would feel compelled to crack off-color jokes in front of the men. Some male supervisors treated younger female colleagues like personal assistants.

Within six months, despite the cachet the lucrative job carried, Fan wanted to quit.

A woman we'll call Zhang had a similar experience at her former employer, Baidu. She told Protocol that senior colleagues joked that Zhang and her younger female coworkers were hired to "please their eyes."

Alibaba and Baidu look and act like they value female empowerment. Alibaba, the ecommerce giant, hosts a Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship every year. Its founder, Jack Ma, has positioned himself as a champion for women and has repeatedly said that Alibaba owes its success to its female workers. Ma has touted the company's relatively hefty share of women in top management — currently, six out of 14 of the most senior roles are staffed by women. Search engine behemoth Baidu, too, likes to tout its relatively high ratio — 46% — of women in management.

"Workplace equality is a core value of Baidu. Female employees account for 43% of Baidu's workforce and 46% of management. Women play significant roles as top executives of the company driving technology innovation and strategy," Baidu said in an email reply. Alibaba did not respond to Protocol's requests for comment.

So why do women like Fan and Zhang have such a rough go of it?

This is the terrible paradox at the heart of Chinese tech, one that will threaten its capacity to innovate in the future. A wave of Chinese women are joining elite tech companies and their boardrooms, often in numbers that compare favorably to tech industries abroad, but it turns out that getting rid of sexism is far more than a numbers game. Women in Chinese tech are marginalized, demoralized and exhausted. When they get home, they're still expected to shoulder most of the childcare and household chores.

The result: Those who manage to ascend have to learn to play — and win — a man's game. This paradox is going to sharpen as more women enter tech and become aware of gender inequality.

Women are increasingly populating Chinese tech offices. Data shows that some of China's biggest internet companies, including ByteDance, Baidu and ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, each employ at least 40% female staff. By way of comparison, statistics show that female employees fill between 28% and 42% of roles at America's five largest tech companies. In India, women make up 34% of the tech workforce; in the U.K., the figure is 19%.

Women have also made it into Chinese tech leadership. Seventy percent of Chinese startups have at least one female executive, a higher proportion than companies in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Silicon Valley Bank. And more than 1,000 women have made it into the boardrooms of China's public tech companies, according to a study conducted by Tianyancha, a data technology service company.

Yet Alibaba and Baidu are not the only "greasy" companies. Leading Chinese tech firms, including Tencent, have posted job ads depicting their female employees as "pretty" or "goddesses" to attract male candidates, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report. In 2017, WeChat's parent company Tencent apologized after footage emerged of a corporate event where female employees were kneeling while using their teeth to open water bottles placed between men's legs. A 2012 job ad for food-delivery group Meituan declared that "finding a job equals finding a woman," featuring a suggestive image of a thong hanging between a woman's legs. "Do what you most want to do," the ad concluded, using a verb for "do" that colloquially means "fuck." In the years since, Meituan has repeatedly depicted young women in its promotional ads as food on the plate for delivery.

In gender studies, the theory of critical mass hypothesizes that deliberative bodies must be made up of at least 30% women to impact policymaking. But at least when it comes to tech, it's clear that neither a high percentage of female execs nor a workforce approaching gender parity equate to workplace equality. Julie Yujie Chen, who teaches at the University of Toronto and has researched the experience of Chinese women in tech, doesn't believe the presence of more women executives in a Chinese tech company will work in favor of female employees. "Women in tech is not a representation issue," she told Protocol. "It is about challenging the norms."

Lin Zhang, an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire who has interviewed dozens of female entrepreneurs in China's tech companies, said many of the women who thrive in this ultra-competitive, male-dominated industry not only have become resigned to workplace masculinity and sexism, but have internalized it. "Because of the generally hostile gender culture in China, there's not much solidarity among women," Zhang said. "Now that they're up there, they feel like, 'I have paid my dues. It's your turn.'"

Alibaba's Fan echoes this: "Although women are much present in Alibaba's senior management, they all have transformed themselves to be greasier than the men. That's how they entered that powerful circle."

Shi is a 30-year-old manager of a content-producing team at Nasdaq-listed video-sharing platform Bilibili. Like Fan and the other female tech workers interviewed for this story, she spoke to Protocol on the condition that she be identified by a pseudonym to avoid retaliation from her employer. Shi said the women in her company leadership "completely subscribe to the 'wolf' mentality. They are just as territorial, aggressive and exploitative as the men."

One result is tech products that objectify women and reinforce gender stereotypes, at least in the way they are marketed and used. Didi Chuxing is helmed by a woman — company president Jean Liu — and Didi's staff was 40% female in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available. However, it encountered scandal with Hitch, a carpooling service launched in 2015 that suggested hookups between drivers and passengers in its 2018 ads. Two female Hitch passengers were raped and killed that same year. The general manager at Hitch was a woman named Huang Jieli.

Even relatively "woke" Chinese companies demand a lot of their employees. A major culprit is Chinese tech's infamous 996 work schedule — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days per week — which can wear workers down. I spoke with most interviewees after 10 p.m. in China, after they had finished a long day's work. Message alerts from colleagues often interrupted our conversations.

This work culture further disadvantages women because of the larger milieu in which they live. Women still shoulder most of the childcare and housework burden in Chinese households. A 2019 National Bureau of Statistics report showed that women spent more than twice as much time as men on unpaid household work. "The lack of reliable childcare service becomes a structural barrier for women to advance their career," said Chen, "especially in sectors like the tech industry."

Although a large number of young Chinese women have joined tech, they are more likely to concentrate at the lower end of the skill and productivity spectrum, such as human resources, public relations and business operations. Programming, often the power center, remains a male-dominated division, with female programmers comprising only 10.4% of its ranks in 2020, according to a report by Chinese digital working platform Proginn. (In the U.S., figures range between 8% and 11%.)

Of course, China has its share of relatively egalitarian companies. Take ByteDance. While it spent last year at the center of U.S. controversy over data-sharing with Beijing, it's seen at home as valuing diversity and inclusion. Dong, who works in the ByteDance HR department, told Protocol she chose the company for its relatively egalitarian culture. It was the only prospective employer that did not inquire about her marital status when she was job-hunting in 2018, and the supervisor of the department she was interviewing for was a woman in her late 30s.

But Dong thinks ByteDance is swimming against the tide. She says several senior female colleagues in her team still had to quit because they couldn't juggle work and childcare demands. It's not a problem unique to China, but female workers there are getting less help than in other countries. "Tech companies in other countries are trying to create a better environment for female workers who face similar social expectations," Dong said. "But in China, they won't specifically create supportive policies for you. The baseline is lower. It's like, 'I'm already doing well by not treating you badly.'"

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This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

There's been a lot of movement to change the diversity of the venture capital industry. Are you seeing any progress?

We're seeing progress and lack of progress, too. It's kind of a mixed result. We're proud of our progress today, but we're still early in the marathon, and we can't let up on where we're going. Rewiring an entire industry obviously isn't done overnight.

We look at two major objectives as we always have, one of which is what is happening in the venture community with the representation of women as check writers in venture. We've seen positive progress there. The percentage of check writers and venture capitalists has gone from 9% in 2018 when we started to 12% at the end of 2019. So we're super excited to see that growth.

In January, we were happy to report that we had seen a record number of new female venture capital partners. There's 54 new women. So that was great progress to see on the venture side.

I'd say the lowlight there was just the lack of underrepresented women investors. We're still pretty light when it comes to women of color.

At the same time that we're celebrating the success of where the needle has moved, where we're running behind is really the funding to female companies with female founders, which, for all intents and purposes, hasn't really budged. It's just kind of a little bit. If we look at the PitchBook data, it went from 11.3% in 2018 to 11.8% in 2019. So that's barely moving, and it certainly stands out in a year where over $130 billion of venture capital was put to work. That's a really small sum of dollars going to female founders, so we clearly need to continue to focus aggressively on both of those sides of the equation.

What do you think needs to change for that needle to move?

We've always said this is an issue of focus. What I do think was really interesting this year was how many people came out to the mounting evidence of the economic benefits of having diversity at the table. And Morgan Stanley finally put a number on it at $4.4 trillion. California is the fifth-largest economy, and the opportunity for investing in and leveraging the diversity in the way that we fund, found and build companies is enormous.

This is the moonshot investment that somebody could make — and it's kind of guaranteed. All the evidence points to diverse teams outperforming and out-innovating nondiverse teams.

And then we need to be more conscious about breaking our pattern recognition. That pattern recognition is what often keeps us stuck in our old mode of behavior. Especially now, when we're looking at what's happening in the current environment, we need to be able to reshape that industry narrative and make sure that we're not back to old pattern-matching exercises that we've gone through that says, "This is what a successful company looks like. I'm going to only invest in existing relationships or experienced operators or people that I know."

We need to break that mode and make sure that investors are looking at the opportunities and that women feel like when they are coming to the table, that they have a great shot at making this happen.

In positive news, in the last year, there are more female unicorns than any other given year. So it is possible to look out and see these iconic founders of the future.

It's really important as we go into this economic recession that we are aware of our biases and pattern-matching recognition, but also this an opportunity for us moving forward to say that this is going to be the next generation. We're going to get through COVID-19. And there will be a boom on the next side of this bust — I've gone through two of them — so a change will come and we will fund and find the next iconic companies that will shape the future for us. And there's an opportunity for us to therefore make sure that there is diversity in the way that those companies are funded, founded and built and operated.

Diversity has been weighing heavily on my mind, because I've been seeing a lot of investors talk about doing deals, but there's acknowledgement that a lot of them are with people who are already in their networks. And I think there's a real concern that if Silicon Valley just reinforces its existing network, it could never get past that 11.8% number. Are you concerned? How are you thinking about trying to get past that or move the needle, even during this pandemic?

There's two ways that we do it. One is that we've always focused on changing what the representation is in venture capital. Not because only women can invest in women — that's not the point — but by having a more diverse firm, you have a more diverse network, you're attracting more diverse opportunities, more diverse founders. You're going to have the resources to be able not only to attract more diversity, but to evaluate these opportunities and see them more broadly, opportunities that you might not see if you were in your closed network environment. So one thing is maintaining that focus on diversifying the venture industry itself.

The other thing is all the programs that we have that are focused on female founders, which is a series of boot camps combined with office hours where we're providing a combination of guidance, support and access.

If women don't have the guidance, support and access that they need, then they don't have a shot at it. So what we're doing is creating boot camps that give them a lot of the guidance and support that they need. What is the roadmap for building an amazing company so that it's not just funded in this moment, but also has the metrics and objectives that it needs to get to the next phase. That includes both tutoring them and giving them kind of the insider's tips and tricks and capabilities that they need, but it also is about opening up relationship networks and getting them access to the functional expertise they need to actually build and grow their business quite aggressively.

The other piece that we do is to make sure that they have access, which is breaking up that concept of the warm introduction, and making sure that they have relationship access and financial capital access, so that they can go and widen the net of people that know them.

Do investors and firms you're talking to still seem interested in making diversity a priority both in terms of money and their time? Or is this back-burnered like many other things due to the current climate?

We've actually seen an acknowledgment that the current climate is going to disproportionately affect women, both on the venture side and on the founder side. We've seen a rallying of our community, a marshaling of our forces to double down and prevent any backsliding on the progress that we've made today and to continue to keep the focus going forward. That comes from both women as well as men in our network. We're seeing a marshaling of resources from the kind of webinars and information that we can share to people who are really going to stay focused on this issue with us.

You've clearly moved some of these webinars and stuff online to try to re-create some of that network. What else is All Raise doing to kind of adapt to this new environment when you can't have happy hours or networking things in person?

I think we're adopting the best practices like everybody in the industry, which is moving real life into a virtual forum, and we're experimenting with different ways to make that happen. I think the fact that everybody is in the same situation is creating momentum. We have a variety of different programs that we've set up that either broadly reach hundreds of women at a time or that we're doing in much more intimate settings. For example, we have a bunch of activities going on this week that match venture capitalists with founders, by stage and by industry area, like consumer versus enterprise. And we're trying to facilitate much smaller groupings and matchings where the investor gets to meet other founders who are up-and-coming and gets to impart their knowledge about, for example, what to expect in fundraising in the current climate.

When you and I talked last year, you said that some years you will gain ground and some years you are going to lose ground. Do you think this year that All Raise will end up losing ground just because of the circumstances?

Well, I wish I had a crystal ball, but the answer is that what we're trying to do is not lose ground. It's a very real concern for everybody, and you can't miss — if companies are laying off 20% to 30% of their workforce — that things are going to get affected. The focus is to not backslide, but to improve. In some areas, you can point to it and say for female founders, we have to be able to do better than that. There's capital to be deployed. There's great new businesses that are going to be funded. There's a lot of women entrepreneurs who are out there. We are focusing a lot on the early-stage investment, seed and A, because that is what is going to probably bounce back first, if other recessions and corrections are emblematic. In 2008, seed came back first and then the A came back. So we're really focusing on making sure that those women have the access, guidance and support they need to get funded and to build really strong business.

Have you found that venture capitalists are open to doing deals today? Are they actually getting deals done at this point?

It depends on the firm and, honestly, some firms are, understandably the last couple of weeks, looking at their portfolios and trying to assist their existing portfolios and navigating this kind of unprecedented crisis. I think majority-wise, the venture capital industry is holding back, but there are bright spots in this. There are companies that are doing well. There are companies that are closing new business, new deals, new rounds of funding. And there's more to come. There's a lot of capital that was raised and remains to be deployed, so we think things will open up. The terms, the valuations may look different, but there is going to be investing that's done.

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Biz Carson

Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.

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