The recent collapse of a high-profile sexual harassment case brought against a renowned television host has rekindled the debate over gender roles in the workplace in China and revitalized the country’s #MeToo movement.
Zhou Xiaoshuan, 27, says she was an intern at Chinese state-run media company CCTV when a prominent TV presenter, Zhu Jun, grabbed her and forcibly kissed her. The case was dismissed on 14 September on the ground that it did not meet the required standards of evidence.
When Zhou first made the allegations on social media in 2018, she quickly became the face of China’s #MeToo movement. Supporters gathered outside the court to oppose the decision as Zhou vowed to appeal.
Media coverage of sexual harassment cases in China has triggered a general discussion on the problem of workplace gender relations. But ensuing discussion often reflects a lack of public awareness of what workplace sexual harassment really is and a persistently gendered expectation of sexuality that women must take responsibility for maintaining their sexual reputation.
The women of the “One Child Generation” (1979 – 2016) are often portrayed in the Chinese media as having lively lives. They are seen as part of a privileged generation: urban, highly educated, professional, with a wide range of opportunities.
Physically and socially, these women enjoy far greater opportunities in the labor market than older urban women and rural women.
But they are not untouched by the widespread sexualization of women that has been a feature of post-Mao China. An overview of my book Gender Sexuality and Power in Chinese Companies: Beauties at Work, Office Culture, and Interviews with Urban Professional Women reveals that gender inequality and sexual politics are embedded in most of China’s state-owned and privately-owned companies.
sex in the workplace
In China’s workplace culture, women are often viewed as a tool to entertain men and a tool to boost organizational morale and productivity. Women employees are regularly subjected to sexual abuse while at work. A female manager told me:
The first time I heard the joke, I was really uncomfortable. They told dirty jokes about me, I wanted to find a crack on the ground and slip into it… nowadays I am totally addicted to it. I’m neither angry nor bothered. I have no response. When I hear jokes, I feel the same way when someone asks “Have you eaten?”
Despite this revision and sexualization of women, past cultural restrictions on sexual expression or discussion have given Chinese women little or no opportunity for sexual autonomy. Chinese women who actively engage in sexual pranks or activities are considered morally decadent. So to maintain their respect, professional women usually keep quiet when they are the object of sexual mockery or naivete.
Men who are good at sexual pranks are approved by senior management as icebreakers—a desirable quality in a customer-facing environment, ultimately driving their career growth. Meanwhile, women in the workplace are expected to learn to live with intuitive and sexual jokes as part of the office routine. As one woman told me: “Women are brought into the workplace for fun”.
Women as ‘Entertainment’
This erotic business culture often includes visits to entertainment venues (including banquets, karaoke parties, and saunas) with customers. Professional women in these situations often become vulnerable to sexual harassment and exploitation. On these occasions of entertainment, it is quite common and a deliberate tactic to use the sex appeal of women to secure business deals, although it is exhausting and extremely stressful for women.
A female manager at an insurance company described karaoke parties:
If you don’t sing, the manager says to me, pointing specifically at you: ‘Why not sing a duet with the guest?’ Then if the client wants to dance, I must also accompany him. But sometimes if you bump into someone whose actions are a bit inappropriate [implying unwanted touching]Well, that’s really unfortunate.
Women often reported incidents of unwanted touching, ranging from hugs and kisses to sexual advances. He said there were no workplace rules to protect him. Also, women had to deal with the expectation from their partners to be able to deal with it. As a female regional branch manager of a pharmaceutical company puts it:
If a woman can’t take it lightly, I would advise her not to stay in this business.
Need: Culture Change
Sexual respect is part of what defines Chinese women’s moral status, so female professionals find themselves constantly walking a fine line between respect and slander. Of course, men don’t have to deal with such a moral judgment.
What is the plan? The necessary first step is to highlight the patriarchal and overly sexist work culture in 21st-century workplaces in China. But it is equally important to discuss the sexual nature of sexuality in wider Chinese society. While men in a market economy happily consume women’s sexuality, women have to tread carefully to maintain their sexual dignity.
What is needed is a state-led institutional reform of China’s business sector. Companies need to put in place formal mechanisms so that female workers no longer have to deal with these routine but highly stressful sexual encounters on their own.