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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