Shortly after Fang Fang — not her real name — landed her new job in the research and development department of a Shanghai electronics company a month ago, she received a welcome email from a male colleague that didn’t sound very welcoming: “Wow! A woman to deal with digital signal processing, a job that makes you lose your hair.”

Fang, who asked to remain anonymous, citing fears of possible retribution by her employer, decided to ignore him. A couple of days later, another male colleague — someone she even didn’t know — from the sales department asked her, “Did they hire you because female engineers earn less than male engineers?”

Fang, a 26-year-old computer hardware engineer, got her master’s degree in communications engineering from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, one of China’s most prestigious research institutions. But her elite education hasn’t stopped her from feeling discriminated against.

“Oh, I’m used to it,” Fang told Sixth Tone.

Once a recruiter with a company affiliated with an international tech brand tried to persuade Fang to give up her career in the industry. “He told me that I shouldn’t bury my talent with a tech job in an office, the way his wife did,” she recalled. Her first boss, at a camera manufacturing startup, told her that he had not expected her to actually “sit down and program.”

Many women say they start feeling discrimination as soon as the job hunt begins. While some companies clearly state they don’t want women for their job vacancies, others are more discreet in their gender preference, simply ignoring the resumes they receive from female applicants.

Women may also face lower pay than men who hold the same position, said Qin Li, a personnel operations manager with a tech startup in Shanghai. Women getting paid less, for example, is perhaps due to the perception that they contribute less than their male counterparts, she said.

Qin attributed sexism in the industry to the relatively young life of the internet in China. “There are so many startups busy fighting for survival,” she said. “When it comes to gender equality, they don’t have the same rules that big companies like Microsoft and Apple have. They may not even be familiar with the notion of gender equality.”

China’s laws prohibit sexism, but unlike their equivalents in the West, they don’t explicitly stipulate what questions companies can and cannot ask during an interview, said Qiu Hengyu, a lawyer who specializes in labor law in Guangzhou, in the southern province of Guangdong. And it’s often hard for women to prove discrimination if the companies don’t openly put criteria for discrimination on the table. Qiu added that officially, there are very few recorded cases of gender discrimination. Relatively little compensation compared to the cost of bringing a lawsuit, together with fear and pressure from bosses and companies, are among the reasons that women feel reluctant to exercise their lawful right to sue.

A women’s marital status is often the subject of extreme scrutiny. The engineer Fang said interviewers often asked about her personal life — whether she was in a relationship and whether her boyfriend was also living in the city. “The interviewers I dealt with seemed to think that a woman would definitely follow her husband’s footsteps and move to be with him,” she said. “But for male candidates, their marital status isn’t questioned at all.”

Cheng Yiting, a 24-year-old programmer with the American tech company VMware Inc. in Shanghai, said that her company holds training seminars about what behaviors are sexist. When one of her classmates was rejected by a Chinese internet company, Cheng said, “She was told that the company did not consider her as a potential employee because she was single.”

However, this phenomenon is hardly confined to the tech industry. “Married with one child” has become the unwritten rule of many medium- and small-sized companies. The situation for female candidates has been further exacerbated with the implementation of the two-child policy this year. Now people want to hire women who are married and have two children. Some female graduate students choose to have children before their first job, according to a report in the Yangtze Evening News.

Zhang Youqin, a professor of sociology at Xiamen University, regrets that the social opinion of women’s roles lags behind the progress they have made academically. There were more female students than males in undergraduate and graduate programs in China in 2014, according to a white paper on Gender Equality and Women’s Development released by the State Council Information Office last year and outlined in a report in China Daily. But stereotypes such as “leftover women” — that women who haven’t married by their late 20s are considered unwanted – are still common in headlines. Zhang is worried that these stereotypes may lower women’s own career expectations.

Cheng, the VMware programmer, is also concerned about the unconscious sexism in the industry: Women are more often forgiven for underperforming and praised for doing well. “It sounds like an advantage, but actually it implies relatively low expectations for women,” she said.

Fang, the computer hardware engineer, has felt the similar “advantage” of being a woman in the industry. The chief technology officer of her current company is not as strict with her as he is with her male colleagues. “But I also feel that he doesn’t count on my contribution at all,” she said.

With contributions from Jiayun Feng.

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole