China tells employers to stop asking women about marriage and babies

Authorities tackle recruitment discrimination in effort to boost female participation

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Chinese authorities have urged employers not to ask women about their marital status or childbearing plans in job interviews, in the latest step to tackle discrimination at work and boost female participation in the labour force.

Women's rights campaigners have highlighted what they called widespread sexism in recruitment among Chinese firms, which routinely favors men or specifically bars women applicants.

In a notice, nine government agencies, including the education and human resources ministries, said gender bias is not allowed when it comes to hiring.

This includes refusing to hire women or restricting their employment due to gender, or asking them about their marital or childbearing status. Pregnancy tests as part of the recruitment process is also barred.

"Gender equality is our country's fundamental policy," said the notice posted on a government website on Thursday.

"Promoting equal employment for women would help to enhance their wider participation in social and economic activities," it added.

China, the world's second largest economy, has one of Asia's highest rates of female participation in workforce but that has declined in recent years and the government is keen to keep women at work as its population ages rapidly.

About 61 per cent of women aged 15 and above were in work in 2018, compared to 73 per cent in 1990, World Bank data shows.

In the wake of the global #MeToo movement last year, Chinese women have spoken out against sexual harassment in schools and the workplace, and the need for more robust rights.

Lawyer Lv Xiaoquan from the Beijing-based Qianqian law firm, which offers legal aid on women's rights cases, said the notice did not go far enough to provide legal protection.

"This is a good step to show the government is serious in tackling gender equality issues but our concern is that it is a guideline, it's not legally binding," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Friday.

Major Chinese tech firms including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent last year pledged to address gender bias in recruitment after a report by watchdog Human Rights Watch which found pervasive sexism.

The New York-based group said firms lured applicants with the promise of working with "beautiful girls" in job adverts, while nearly one in five ads for Chinese government jobs last year were for "men only" or "men preferred."

Human Rights Watch's China researcher Yaqiu Wang said on Friday the new notice was a step forward.

"We hope the government will vigorously enforce the new measures, as enforcement of existing anti-gender discriminatory laws and regulations has been fairly poor so far," Wang said in an emailed statement. China was ranked 103 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2018 Gender Gap Report.

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