Cindy Wang never thought she would be building a career in online live streaming. The 37-year-old mother of one from the Chinese city of Suzhou used to have a promising job in China’s booming retail industry. An industry she worked in for more than 10 years.
However, since being laid off by a major international sporting company for unexplained reasons in February, she has struggled to find another full-time job in one of China’s wealthiest regions.
“During interviews, the hiring managers would ask how many children I have and whether I could find a balance between work and family life,” Wang told VOA in a phone interview. “Whenever I reveal that I’m married and have a child, the hiring manager would immediately question whether I can commit to working overtime like everyone else in the company.”
Wang’s experience is not unique. Amy Su, a 35-year-old designer with more than a decade of work experience in Beijing, hasn’t been able to find a full-time job in her field since she moved back to her hometown of Chongqing in February.
“Hiring managers will often think that married women with children won’t be able to commit to their jobs wholeheartedly, and they think women over 35 won’t be able to handle the immense pressure at work,” Su told VOA in a phone interview.
“Some managers even told me bluntly that they only want to hire fresh graduates because they have more potential, while married women over 35 often lack creativity in their views,” she added.
Wang and Su’s experiences highlight some of the persistent challenges married women face in the current job market. A market that has become even more challenging in the wake of the pandemic and amid a slowing Chinese economy.
In recent months, discrimination and employment has been a hot topic in China, with several state media outlets publishing articles about the challenges women face. On the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu, which is similar to Instagram, type in the keywords “married women with kids,” “discrimination” and “job search” and dozens of posts pop up about Chinese women and their experiences.
In March, a survey carried out by Zhaopin, one of China’s biggest online recruitment platforms, found that 61.1 percent of women were asked about marriage and their plans to have children during job interviews. Additionally, 51.1 percent of female respondents say age is a factor that will affect the prospects of their careers.
Since Chinese authorities reversed a decades old policy that limited most families to one child and launched a two-child policy in 2016, some women say questions related to their childbearing status have become routine during job interviews, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch in 2021.
The report also found that some employers would impose punishments, such as fines, on female employees if they become pregnant. In other cases, companies may make the work environment so difficult that pregnant female employees may be forced to resign.
Even though laws in China ban gender and pregnancy-related discrimination in employment, experts say these laws only provide minimal enforcement mechanisms, which allow companies to keep ignoring requirements laid out by the laws.
“Even if companies violate relevant policies and regulations, they will not face any consequences,” Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, told VOA in a phone interview. Wang has been following the topic closely since China reversed its one-child policy in 2016.
“Some companies don’t want to hire women because they will likely take maternity leave in the future while other businesses still believe that once women become mothers, they can’t concentrate on their work, which leads to a general reluctance of hiring women or promoting women at workplaces,” Wang added.
On the day she was fired, Wang said a human resource specialist at her former company brought two security guards and a lawyer to inform her that they had unilaterally ended her employment contract due to her misconduct.
“They asked me to sign the employment termination letter without proper investigation or evidence, and it seemed like they wanted to force me to resign on that day,” she told VOA. “I decided to settle the dispute through labor arbitration, but since my former employer was better prepared, I lost the arbitration ultimately.”
After months of unsuccessfully searching for a job, Wang decided to join the live streaming industry and become a host that sells language learning curricula for children. “Since I used to conduct training courses for my former company, I think I’m good at communication and interaction, so I decided to become a livestreaming host,” Wang explained.
Wang’s income, however, is 100% commission based and she also has to share her profits with the owner. “There is no guaranteed income, and I usually livestream three hours a day,” she said. “Sometimes I may fail to sell anything, and sometimes I may sell five sets of the curriculum.”
Meanwhile, Su in Chongqing is considering starting her own small business.
“I feel like I have to give up all my experiences as a designer and say yes to whatever job opportunity that might come my way,” she told VOA. “It’s a problem that all Chinese women may face when they turn 35.”
Discrimination a “secondary issue”
While Chinese authorities continue to amend laws designed to safeguard women’s rights, Wang from Freedom House, says the lack of freedom of speech in China makes it hard for the government to learn about Chinese women’s grievances.
“Since China is not a democracy, there is no channel for Chinese women to inform the government about their grievances,” she told VOA. And because discrimination against women doesn’t cause regime instability, there is no sense of urgency to address this longstanding problem in Beijing’s view, Wang added.
“For the Chinese Communist Party, the most important goal is to hold onto power in China, and women’s rights are viewed as a secondary issue,” she concluded.
With no viable solution in sight to tackle this persistent problem and China’s economic performance remaining weak, Wang and Su both feel pessimistic about the prospect of their careers. “I feel confused and lost, and there are other people around my age who are expressing pessimistic views about the prospect of their own career,” Wang said with a sigh.
She adds that with talks about China potentially raising the retirement age to 65 in recent months, it is hard to say what kind of work she will do for the next two decades. She doubts she can last that long doing livestreaming.