Sexual Harassment is a Gender Equality Issue

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This article discusses the factors that make sexual harassment so widespread and problematic in China, showing that the sources of sexual harassment are no different in China than in other countries and can be traced to existing gender norms and power imbalances between men and women in the workplace.

Zhongze’s efforts to change businesses’ attitudes toward sexual harassment was not an easy task. Since the project started in 2006, the vast majority of businesses have either opposed initiatives or taken a wait-and-see approach by refusing to participate. In contrast, six businesses had the courage and insight to experiment in going beyond their legal responsibilities, highlighting the persistent and innovative role of the NGO, Zhongze, in addressing the problem of sexual harassment1.

“This problem is due to deficiencies in the law, as well as traditional gender roles. These factors lead to businesses with an archaic understanding of sexual harassment,” said Secretary-General Lin Lixia of Zhongze Women’s Watch. China’s sexual harassment problem is rooted in a nascent legal system, unresponsive businesses, and traditional gender roles and other cultural factors. These are all mutually intertwined and often form the major obstacle towards a more gender-neutral society. Unfortunately, improvements in gender equality have not developed in step with China’s sustained economic rise.“The development of gender roles in China is particularly backward.” said Ma Leijun, officer of the United Nations Task Force Group on Gender (UNTGG) Thematic Area on Gender Equality, which frequently provides data refuting the common perception of women in China holding a high status in society. The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Report, published annually, ranks different countries based on gender development and women’s rights. The United Nations uses these rankings to determine indicators for gender equality to judge progress in equal participation in politics, economics, and occupational opportunity. In the 2009 report, China was ranked no. 72, behind the following Asian countries: Japan (56), Vietnam (61), and South Korea (67). Another 2008 report from the United Nations and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs evaluated the implementation and progress of China’s Millennium Development Goals. They concluded that China has become the world’s model for poverty alleviation, but still faces major challenges in the areas of gender equality, AIDS prevention, and sustainable development.

Developmental aid from the United Nations to China has been irregular. In recent years, China has experienced an obvious trend of withdrawal of international funds. Ma Leijun noted, “The Global Fund, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), and other organizations and programs, which previously provided funding to China are gradually withdrawing funding. This year, staff and projects in the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) were halved. However, last year four agencies were merged to become the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (hereafter referred to as “UN Entity for Women”), and increased the amount of aid into China. The new UN Entity for Women is expected to become a driving force for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace is About Power

“According to Tsinghua University professor Sun Liping, abuse of power is currently China’s most serious problem. Our research intends to ascertain whether sexual harassment is an issue of power distinct from gender discrimination.” said Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Sociology (CASS) researcher Tang Can. The research Professor Tang refers to is a study funded by Oxfam Hong Kong from 2004 to 2007. The research involved 24 case studies of sexual harassment, analyzing interviews of victims, relatives, lawyers, and judges. The analysis paid special attention to the subjects’ behavior, body language, and logic, which indicated that sexual harassment was shaped by a specific transitional period and culture. According to Western feminists of the 1970s, sexual harassment has its roots in gender-based social inequality. The Chinese case study also validated this conclusion.

The research study found that in some cases, sexual harassment would develop into rape. In cases where women were unable to stop the harassment, the generally lower social status of women and the harasser’s powerful relationships and behavior put her in a vulnerable position and her refusal had little effect. This was contrasted with cases where female victims successfully rejected their harasser’s attentions. They found that in these cases, the victimizers and the victims were often of equal social status; the social interaction between the two would qualify as coercive. Sexual harassment thus occurred when a victim and the harasser’s positions of authority were significantly different.

In addition, Professor Tang and other researchers’ studies have shown that the social environment and the institutional system are two major factors influencing sexual harassment. If management is sufficiently impartial and deliberately conscious of the problem, women’s efforts in resisting sexual harassment can be rewarded. The third factor is whether a woman has the knowledge and skill to fend off sexual harassment. Judging by this research, gender inequality and unequal positions of power are the root causes of sexual harassment, constraining the choices and options available to both the victim and the harasser. Multinational statistical studies from the International Labour Organization support this theory. As there is no social safety net for victims or channels for assistance, it is critical that businesses and senior management step up and become an important line of defense to the vulnerable by providing prevention programs. Professor Tang said, “Compared with those in the normal workforce, those without a formal workplace are even less likely to be able to lodge complaints about their situation.” Certain workplaces have developed a poor response to the problem of sexual harassment, Professor Tang found. Those surveyed commonly replied that their employers were not at all concerned, ignoring women’s interests, dignity, and feelings. Women found it hard to receive fair and equal protection from management. State-owned enterprises were specifically mentioned as exemplifying this situation.

“In cases of abuse of power involving sexual harassment, state-owned enterprises are apparently unable to control the problem. The management of state-owned enterprises seems to have unlimited power. Of the 24 cases in the research study, over half took place in state-owned enterprises. According to Professor Tang, state-owned enterprises still have a problem in dealing with sexual harassment cases. “Sexual harassment is seen as immoral behavior that is corrupting society. A trend of highly politicized cases caught the attention of the general public, and the backlash of opinion condemned both the victim and the harasser alike” 2. This approach is often harmful to both the victim and the harasser. Moreover, this allows the state-owned enterprises to shift the blame and cover up the problem, and government agencies to avoid dealing with it. In fact, their lack of empathy towards the victim causes harm and forces the burden of proof on her, even to the extent that when the victim lodges a complaint, she is persecuted from all sides. This is a not at all uncommon situation.

Professor Tang and other researchers have clearly shown in their studies that there is a huge gap in attitudes and awareness towards sexual harassment between academics and the general public. In recent years, the unofficial public view on sexual harassment is that the victim is somehow inviting it. Cultural attitudes further blur the lines of responsibility between the harasser and the victim. Professor Tang said that accepting or rejecting sexual harassment is not a matter of personal attitude. It is simply unacceptable to ask women to sacrifice their own interests and employment opportunities. This research study is aimed at correcting errors in the general public opinion, and to help guide the general public on the traditional cultural response of victim-blaming, and to focus attention on gender equality, equal protection under the law, and defects in the legal system.


  1. Editor’s Note: Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Services Center is the new name of China’s oldest independent women’s legal aid NGO, formerly known as Beijing University Women’s Legal Aid Center. Zhongze’s recent efforts to work with businesses to address sexual harassment are detailed in another CDB article, “A NGO Works with Companies to Prevent Sexual Harrassment”. 

  2. Editor’s Note: One such case was a 2009 incident involving Deng Yujiao, an employee at a karaoke entertainment center, who stabbed a government official when he tried to force her to have sex with him. Deng’s case sparked a firestorm in the blogosphere and media about sexual harassment and whether she should be punished. She was tried in court for murder but was set free after the court found her guilty of a lesser charge of using excessive force in self-defense. 

In Brief

This article, which comes out a few days after International Women’s Day (March 8), accompanies a related article about the path-breaking work of a women’s legal aid NGO in addressing sexual harassment in China.
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