That Glass Ceiling, Break it

I was commissioned by The Guardian to write a 700-to-800-word article about Chinese women working in technology. After interviewing six people, each of whom with a distinct personality and an impressive story,  I wrote over 2000 words. The published version ( had be to cut down to under 1000 words.  I decide to publish the longer version at my own blog.

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“I hope my son would become someone like Elon Musk.  I hope my  daughter would choose her career in liberal arts or social sciences, so she won’t repeat my struggles. And she can go to work dressed up and made up, like a lady,” said Lanxuan (not her real name), a chemical engineer in Dongguan.

She would not have imagined herself saying this sixteen years ago, when she graduated from high school, with a score of 147 (out of 150) in chemistry at Gaokao (China’s college entrance exams),  believing she was  as bright, as intelligent, and as promising as the boys in her class.

She joined an electronic materials company in Dongguan, Guangdong Province in 2007, working in a lab providing tech support services. She has worked hard and seized every opportunity to prove her ability.  In 2011, she even sent her baby daughter away to her parents in Jiangxi Province, so she could concentrate on her career. Now she regrets it,  because she finds she barely understands her daughter, whom she brought back to Dongguan recently, and because there has been no promotion, nor pay raise.

Lanxuan would not give up easily, though.  In 2014, when her company launched a national speech contest, she saw hope: If winning the contest, she might be seen, recognized,  even promoted.  She won the first prize in 2015.

This prize turned out be the beginning of her final struggle before giving up. Instead of congratulations, she was bombarded with jibes: “she was wasting time on something not directly related to her profession, she was taking a shortcut, she was too ambitious for a woman.”

Sexism didn’t quench her desire for success. In 2016, she convinced her company to let her try on-site tech support for customers. However, with the opportunity, came more work and more struggles. She still had to do her old job in the lab besides on-site tech support – with no extra pay. The customers, usually men, hesitated to cooperate because she was a woman.  “If I asked for a chemical for an experiment, I had to wait for a long time. If my male colleague asked for it, they brought it immediately,” she said.  Meanwhile,  her colleagues at the lab complained of extra work due to her field trips for on-site tech support. They were extremely unhappy if her trip lasted more than one day.

Her superior, also a woman, had a chat with her, trying to persuade her to give up the field trips. “She assumed a caring tone,  ‘ it is too dangerous for women. You are a woman, why bother?’” Lanxuan  said,  “It was suppression in the name of caring.”

Lanxuan didn’t give up.

So came the second talk.

Still  she wouldn’t give up.

Then came the last straw: her superior went to her husband, “Why let your wife do this?”

Lanxuan was fed up, “For years, I have felt an invisible ceiling above me. Invisible but stifling. All those obstacles in the name of caring. The suppression in the name of protection.” She would have resigned if she had not found herself pregnant with her son last year.   

Now on maternity leave, she is preparing for her next career – selling insurance.  She will be able to dress up as a saleswoman, “As an engineer, I dress like a man. I almost lost my femininity!”

The glass ceiling Luanxuan experiences  is not uncommon in China.  Zhaopin Ltd., an online recruiter surveyed nearly 130,000 people in 2017 and found that about 22% of women have experienced severe or very severe discrimination when seeking employment. That percentage rose to about 43% for women with graduate degrees.  Women were paid 30% less than men in China’s internet industry last year, according to Boss Zhipin, which surveyed over 365,000 pay samples nationwide.

It is under such glass ceiling that Tian Xiaole (Not her real name), a software engineer in Shenzhen, seems eager to shake off her  femininity. In her team, all the women engineers dress like a man. T-shirts and jeans. Never skirts. “We are wo-men, instead of women,” She chuckled. Wo-men is a translation for 女汉子,  adult tomboys. Dressing like a man has become an announcement – we wo-men work like men. “If you dress up prettily, some men see you only a woman, not an engineer.”

For some, dressing like a man is a way to boost confidence at a workplace dominated by men. “Somehow, men seem to be born self-assured, but some women tend to have a lower self-esteem,” Tian Xiaole said, then described to me a typical example of men’s self-assurance versus women’s lack of confidence at her work place:

“A software tester (a woman) finds a mistake in a test. She goes to the coder (a man), ‘I think there is a mistake in the coding.’ The coder, ‘can’t be. You must have made a mistake while testing.’  So the tester goes back and  tests again and again until she is sure the mistake is in the coding. She goes back to the coder. The coder grumbles as he checks the coding. And there it is, he finds a mistake in the coding. But he says, ‘I tell you. The coder before me wrote this line. Not my fault!’”

We  both laughed.  She said, “sometimes I wish I were a man.”

If she were a man, she wouldn’t  be pestered about her marital status when seeking employment, as happened in August, 2017, at an interview for a position with one of China’s biggest internet companies:

“Are you married?”


“Do you plan to marry soon?”

“I haven’t met my Mr. right yet. ”

“What if you meet your Mr. right soon?”

“I won’t marry in the next few years.”

“How are you going to guarantee you won’t marry in the next few years?”

In Chinese culture, it is common for women to put their roles as a wife and mother before their careers. After marriage, women are expected to juggle their careers with having children and looking after the family, including the older generation. While While maternity leave is available, it is seen by companies as a hindrance and as a result some explicitly state that they don’t hire women for certain positions.

In September, 2017, Xu Xin, an MA candidate studying AI engineering at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou was rejected by Huya Broadcasting, a live game streaming platform.  “They say they don’t want women,” Xu Xin lamented, “for the first time in my life, I realize that sexism does exist!”

Tang Guoyong, founder of HRoot,  an HR media company based in Guangzhou, confirmed that sexism is common among Chinese technology companies, “they filter out female candidates when going through resumes. The situations is worse now that China’s second-child policy is in effect.” That’s because companies fear a second child will mean more maternity leave and further time off to fulfill family responsibilities.  Mr. Tang thinks sexism in technology  is understandable, “because technology work is too intense for women, who are physically less strong, and not as good at logical thinking as men. ”

Li Bo, a software development manager with one of China’s biggest technology companies, disagrees with Mr. Tang. She works as hard as her male colleagues. She works out every day and is physically strong. She leads a team of twelve software engineers, ten of whom are men.

She also disagrees with Lanxuan and Tian Xiaole, who hide their femininity at work.  She highlights her femininity.

“I dress up and I wear makeup,” Li Bo laughed, “This is my statement: I AM a woman, but I am NOT inferior. ”

Indeed, she is not. In ten years, she has successfully developed her career from Product Instruction Writer to Customer Solution Manager, then Scrum Master, then Project Manager, now Software Development Manager.

Her career path is not always as smooth as it sounds, though. Some jibe at her and attribute her success to  “being close to the boss.”

“I don’t forget  jibes,” she said, “I revenge.”

She revenges by working harder, by acquiring new knowledge and skills,  by proving and improving her excellence.

The results?

She often receives invitations  from other  teams or companies to join them.

Her friends often joke that she is the Chinese version of Sheryl Sandberg. It happens Li Bo highly appreciates Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” She thinks Sandberg has set an example for women working in technology.

Li Bo, too, wants to set an example. While recognizing the glass ceiling for women working in technology, she does think that some women tend to victimize themselves as a minority, subconsciously associating femininity with weakness and inferiority. “I have a mission to shatter this mindset,” she said.  Maybe, with Li Bo and her likes’ leadership, when Lanxuan’s daughter enters the labour market, it would be common to see Chinese women working as engineers, managers, even CEOs in technology, with equal opportunities and equal pays,  prettily dressed up and made up.

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