As Women’s Day is observed worldwide on March 8, we look at the strides made by China in upholding the rights of women and the laws enacted to safeguard these gains. Even as reforms are pushed by the state, businesses have a responsibility in society to pay close attention to how they can continually improve organizational culture so that no allowances are made for discriminatory actions, right from hiring to promotion paths and remuneration. Foreign companies and investors can lead the way by implementing action-oriented policies that can contribute to more diverse and secure workplaces. A gender-positive work environment will be conducive to a more productive workplace – after all, companies cannot function without human resources. As younger Chinese enter the workforce today, their social consciousness and prioritization of mental well-being necessitate an upfront attitude by employers over staff safeguards and measures in place to create an empowered workplace.
China is making strides toward protecting women’s rights through stronger legal frameworks, including the latest updates to the women’s protection law. This is a game-changer for women in China and the economy at large.
In today’s business world, including China’s, gender equality and social responsibility are slowly becoming more visible priorities. Across the world, businesses are being called to play a role in creating a more inclusive working environment through meaningful actions and policies.
To meet such a mandate for change, companies must establish organizational procedures to eliminate or filter out gender discrimination and workplace harassment, with clear safeguards in place and accountability at all staff levels.
In this context, we discuss the position of women in the workplace in China and legal safeguards, such as the revised Women’s Protection Law, which employers must consider when establishing an organizational culture that ensures a respectful workplace.
Women’s rights in China
Like many countries around the world, China has faced challenges in promoting gender equality and protecting women’s rights. While progress has been made in recent years, issues such as workplace discrimination, domestic violence, and limited access to education and employment opportunities continue to impact women in China.
The government has also pledged to boost gender equity in the Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research sector, which is still male-dominated. This under-representation is evidenced by the meager 6 percent female membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This figure is quite telling because women make up 46 percent of the country’s science and technology labor force. To remedy this imbalance, the government has planned a series of measures that include enhanced training and career development slots, as well as recruiting more women into leadership positions.
Moreover, the Chinese government has taken steps to strengthen its legal framework for protecting women’s rights. The latest updates to the women’s protection law are part of a broader effort to promote gender equality and create a more inclusive society. While the government recognizes that more work needs to be done to fully address gender inequality in China, these updates are a step in the right direction.
Latest revisions to China’s Women’s Protection Law
After a year-long process involving two drafts and public consultation, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee has updated the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law (中华人民共和国妇女权益保障法). The revised legislation, which came into effect on January 1, 2023, is the first amendment to the women-focused law in 15 years and aims to safeguard the interests of women in the workplace and society.
The law, first passed in 1992 and revised in 2005 and 2018, was updated with 25 new articles, reflecting increased public awareness of women’s well-being. The new provisions strengthen the protection of the rights and interests of disadvantaged groups, such as poor women, elderly women, and disabled women.
The revisions were based on extensive research and aimed to address thorny issues concerning women’s rights, including gender-based discrimination in the workplace, birth rights, and sexual harassment.
For a more comprehensive analysis of the legislative updates, please refer to our dedicated article.
Gender discrimination and birth rights
The latest version of the women’s protection law has expanded the previous versions’ protections and imposed more obligations on employers. This means that employers are now not allowed to withhold promotions and professional advancement based on factors like marriage, pregnancy, or parental status.
The updated law also prohibits employers from asking discriminatory questions about a female job applicant’s marital or parental status during the recruiting process and from rejecting them based on their answers.
Indeed, one significant change in the updated law is the ban on certain hiring practices, including pregnancy tests as part of pre-employment physicals and making hiring decisions based on marital or parental status. If employers violate these provisions, they may face fines ranging from RMB 10,000 (US$1,443) to 50,000 (US$7,215).
In addition to these legal protections, the government has also enacted measures to provide a positive fertility support system. It is a known fact that giving birth, and all associated complications, severely hamper many women’s professional trajectory, something their male colleagues do not contend with. Many women are forced to leave their newborn babies behind because of the pressure to return to work. It is on this premise that the government is striving to make the workplace a more fertility-friendly place. Measures like reinforcing maternity leave guidelines are among a string of policies put in place by the Chinese government.
While promoting gender equality, these changes also protect professional women’s choices of having children by ensuring that this won’t harm their careers.
Meanwhile, there are changes being made to China’s legal framework regarding workplace sexual harassment. Previously, the law only granted the right for victims to report incidents of harassment to their employers.
However, under the revised legislation, employers are required to fulfill specific affirmative obligations, such as implementing internal policies that prohibit sexual harassment and establishing procedures for the prompt handling of complaints.
If employers fail to comply with these obligations, supervisors and other responsible personnel may face personal legal consequences.
Implications for foreign businesses and investors
According to Chinese media reports, during the public comments period, the proposed amendments to the women’s protection law received more than 700,000 submissions. While it is reasonable to assume that there may be differing opinions on the new legislation, there appears to be significant support for the changes. This suggests that Chinese authorities will be motivated to enforce the law’s new provisions meaningfully.
In light of this, businesses operating in China should review their policies and practices to ensure compliance with the new legislation. Special attention should be given to hiring practices, particularly if they are subcontracted to recruiting agencies or similar entities. Additionally, businesses should take measures to ensure that their sexual harassment reporting mechanisms are effective given the unique circumstances of their workplaces.
Benefits for businesses that prioritize gender equality in China
With the recent updates to the country’s Women’s Protection Law, businesses that prioritize gender equality and support the protection of women’s rights are likely to benefit in several ways. Firstly, they will be able to attract and retain talented female employees who will feel more valued and respected in a workplace that prioritizes gender equality. This can lead to increased productivity and better employee satisfaction, which ultimately translates to better performance.
In addition, businesses that put gender parity issues to the forefront are likely to be viewed more favorably by consumers who are becoming increasingly aware of social issues and are looking to support companies that align with their values. By publicly supporting gender equality and promoting the protection of women’s rights, businesses can set themselves apart from their competitors and build a loyal customer base.
One such example is Walmart. In 2019, Walmart China launched a ‘Women’s Economic Empowerment Project’ aimed at providing training and development opportunities to female employees, as well as supporting women-owned businesses in the company’s supply chain. The project was launched in partnership with UN Women and other organizations and is part of the company’s broader commitment to sustainability and social responsibility.
Another example is Microsoft, which has been recognized for its efforts in promoting gender equality in the workplace in China. In 2020, Microsoft China was ranked second on the ‘Top Employers for Women’ list published by the Chinese Women’s Daily newspaper. The company has implemented several initiatives to support its female employees, including mentoring programs and flexible work arrangements.
Finally, there is Alibaba Group, which has been a leader in promoting gender diversity and women’s rights in China. The company’s Women’s Leadership Academy provides training and development opportunities to female employees, and Alibaba has also established numerous initiatives to support women entrepreneurs and small business owners in China. In 2018, the company launched the “A100” program, which aims to help 100 women entrepreneurs each year to achieve a revenue of at least RMB 10 million (US$1.5 million).
How can businesses deal with the new amendments?
Foreign businesses and investors in China can take several steps to navigate the new amendments to the Women’s Protection Law and uphold their commitment to gender equality.
First, they can prioritize due diligence and transparency in their operations, including conducting regular audits to ensure compliance with the new protections and communicating their commitment to gender equality to stakeholders. In addition, businesses can invest in training, gender sensitization, and education programs to raise awareness of gender equality issues and promote a culture of respect and inclusion in the workplace. Companies can also work with local partners and suppliers to align their values and expectations around gender equality, and actively seek out and support women-owned businesses and suppliers.
While official laws establish the baseline for ethical conduct, an effective and comprehensive corporate system for tackling gender discrimination and workplace sexual harassment enhances workplace satisfaction, improves productivity, and, crucially, promotes the long-term success of the company.
It is of utmost importance to uphold and promote women’s rights in China like elsewhere around the world. To achieve this, foreign businesses and investors can play a vital role in driving positive change.
By supporting and investing in companies that prioritize gender equality and diversity in their operations, for example, investors can contribute to creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace for women in China.
Additionally, can optimize their resources in conformity with the law to embrace best practices that support women’s rights and combat gender discrimination in the workplace.
Through these efforts, employers can help empower women, promote social progress, and contribute to a more prosperous and sustainable future for all.
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dezan Shira & Associates has offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Russia, in addition to our trade research facilities along the Belt & Road Initiative. We also have partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh.