BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Ms Li has a day job in the marketing department of one of China’s biggest tech firms. At night, she has a second career, livestreaming herself eating noodles or telling jokes in return for small donations from thousands of online viewers.
Li, 28, says she is one of at least five women in her office who moonlight to bolster their incomes. She says this is because she and her female peers are paid less than male colleagues and are often overlooked for promotion.
The late nights livestreaming on the YY.com social media platform are worth it, Li says, even though she has been reprimanded twice by her firm for moonlighting.
“The first time I was punished I was scared for my job, but I don’t worry too much now,” Li said. She asked that her first name and the name of her employer not be used.
“It’s not such a risk to work on the side if you know you’re not going anywhere.”
But Li’s account of unequal pay at her company, which Reuters was unable to verify independently, underscores how women are often sidelined in that boom.
Reuters spoke to more than a dozen women - and some men - in the sector, from entry-level employees to executives, who described an industry where female engineers and coders battle against ingrained biases favoring men.
“The traditional view is simply to think that women aren’t suitable to be programmers,” said Chen Bin, a former Microsoft engineer and the Beijing-based founder of Teach Girls Coding, a campaign to get more women into the sector.
“Things are better now than ten years ago, but overall the number of women getting into tech is really small,” he said.
China is not the only country where the tech industry has faced heat over a lack of diversity in the workplace. But unlike U.S. peers that have faced legal action over discrimination, including Uber, Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O Google and Microsoft Corp MSFT.O, Chinese technology companies are relatively opaque about gender issues.
Most give little data on hiring and none of the industry leaders share the diversity reports that are now customary in the United States, shedding doubt on whether women in Chinese firms hold a comparable number of technical or leadership roles.
Penny Chen, a 29-year-old software engineer, has worked with the Chinese e-commerce firm JD.com Inc JD.O and Jinri Toutiao, a popular news app.
For her, the gender divide has long been knitted into the culture. At university, teachers would pair boys with good grades with attractive girls for class activities as a reward, she said. The same didn’t happen for high-achieving girls.
In the workplace, she says female colleagues are often left out of social events dominated by men. She described one incident in which employees were scheduled to go out for drinks together.
“Our boss told the women to meet outside,” she said. “But it was a practical joke; the men had already left before with the bus to the restaurant.”
Examples of sexism at major Chinese companies often wind up on social media, sometimes sparking online outcries.
Last year, video surfaced of a Tencent staff event that included a game in which female employees on their hands and knees had to unscrew bottle caps held between the legs of male counterparts. Tencent apologized for the incident.
The Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing was criticized this month for allowing users on its carpooling app to rate female passengers’ physical traits after a 21-year-old air hostess was killed by her driver. The company has since apologized and made substantial changes to the service.
Many other incidents slip under the radar. The owner of the news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, a tech darling valued at over $20 billion, this month co-hosted a beauty pageant for female business reporters that attracted little attention. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
China’s gender gap is not confined to tech. The country’s gender parity ranking fell in 2017 for the ninth straight year, leaving China placed 100 out of 144 countries surveyed in a report by the World Economic Forum.
The country ranked 60th in terms of female labor force participation and 70th in terms of wage equality for similar work. Men on average had an estimated income of around $19,000, over $7,000 more than women.
Many top tech firms say they are taking steps to change their male-oriented cultures by doing things like changing hiring practices to promote gender diversity. However, many female employees and women in the industry say that many of the most sexist practices have simply been hidden from view.
Samantha Kwok, the Australian-Chinese founder of the Beijing-based recruitment firm JingJobs, said clients often gave her two job descriptions: one to be published publicly and a second internal one that detailed requirements based on age or gender.
“They already have in mind a very set candidate profile,” she said.
Human Rights Watch released a report last month showing that “men only” ads were pervasive in China.
It also called out large technology firms for objectifying women in order to attract new male personnel, sharing a video produced by Alibaba in 2014 that featured pole-dancing female employees.
Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu apologized for the ads mentioned in the report, adding that actual incidents were isolated.
According to experts, legal redress for gender discrimination is undermined by vague laws in China. While the country prohibits workplace bias, actual enforcement is rare and there are virtually no high-profile cases on record.
“China’s law is very good in that it prohibits all discrimination against women,” said Feng Yuan, co-founder of Equality, a women’s rights advocacy group. “But there is no definition whatsoever of what discrimination is.”
Some women feel pressured to play up perceived “male” behavior to succeed, including eschewing family life, giving rise to a group called the “nü hanzi” - loosely meaning tomboys. Some job adverts even specify a preference for male candidates or “manly women”.
“If you want to achieve your goals, if you want to start a company you have to appear tough,” said Joanna Wei, a Beijing entrepreneur and venture capitalist.
“LABYRINTH OF CHALLENGES”
A 2018 survey by Silicon Valley Bank found Chinese startups were more likely to have at least one woman founder or director than counterparts in western countries. But in high-level roles at top tech firms, women were still rare.
Currently, the search engine giant Baidu BIDU.O, Alibaba and Tencent have one woman on their collective boards out of 24 board seats.
"As one of the few female CEOs of an internet company in China, I understand the labyrinth of challenges that faces working women," Jane Sun, chief executive officer of the China's top online travel agent Ctrip.com CTRP.O.
She said Ctrip actively tries to promote women and that around one-third of senior management was female.
The gender imbalance in Chinese tech firms also remains largely unaddressed, especially among entry level and middle management roles, where stereotypes around marital status, temperament and age stall women where male counterparts advance.
Anna Peng, 26, an associate at a Beijing-based venture capital firm focused on tech, said she was the only woman on her team and that women needed to outperform men doing similar roles just to stay level - a sentiment reflected by others.
She said the proportion of women in the tech investment industry was really low. “They’re like phoenix feathers and unicorn horns,” she said, using a Chinese idiom meaning extremely rare.
Reporting by Cate Cadell in BEIJING and Adam Jourdan in SHANGHAI; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in BEIJING and SHANGHAI newsroom; Editing by Philip McClellan
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