Why workplaces in China should be proactive in the fight for LGBT+ equality

Posted in: activism, Equality, Human Resources, Human rights

As the US, UK and other (predominantly Western) countries celebrate Pride Month we are reflecting on the progress being made in countries who are less far along their LGBT inclusion journey. Here Ivy Wong, a diversity and inclusion consultant from China, supported by Dr Luke Fletcher, explore the reality of LGBT+ equality in Chinese workplaces. The relevance of the workplace to the wider context of equality is perhaps not immediately obvious, but establishing employment protections for LGBT workers has been a key foundation or jumping off point for LGBT inclusion in many countries.

In China, it is estimated that there are 70 million individuals identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). However, only 5% of them are willing to come out. Whilst there has been strong, visible progress, as well as advocacy, across much of the West, there is a more concerning picture in the East. This is because the cultural, religious, political, and economic landscape is very different which may alter the expression and acceptance of minority sexualities and gender identities.

Given same sex relationships and/or transgender identities are heavily stigmatised and may not be formally recognised across many countries, there is a need to understand how LGBT people in specific countries, particularly those in the East, can navigate these challenges when it comes to work and employment, and to what extent progress toward LGBT equality is being made.

Ms A’s story

The experience of Ms A’s shows clearly why LGBT individuals are hesitant to come out and so often lead a double life in China.

Ms A is identified as a transgender woman. She graduated with a master’s degree from a respected university in the UK. However, she was not able to secure a job after returning to China. She decided to conceal her identity and dress as a man to attend all the job interviews at a Chinese state-owned bank. On the day of signing her offer, she mastered her courage to ask the human resources manager if the bank has any trans-inclusive policy. The HR manager not only changed their attitude towards Ms A but also withdrew the offer and forced her to leave immediately.

Ms A is not alone. According to the report by the UNDP 21% of the LGBT respondents reported discrimination at work in China. Although homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1997 and depathologised since 2001, there is still no employment specific laws protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identities and expressions in China. While representatives from China accepted the U.N. Human Rights Council’s recommendations on LGBT rights in 2019, there has been occasional crackdowns on LGBT content on social media and among LGBT student and community groups in the last few years. The largest and longest running LGBT community group, ShanghaiPRIDE, was closed down in 2020, without stating any specific reasons.

Should businesses in China openly address LGBT issues?

With the changing and challenging environment for the LGBT community, should businesses talk about LGBT issues in China? According to a comparative report by the UNDP, employees in China were found to be more satisfied with their work, reported less discrimination, and were more willing to come out if their companies had stronger LGBT inclusive workplace policies and practices. Therefore, it makes perfect business sense for businesses in China to talk about LGBT inclusion. This mirrors academic research, predominantly in the US and UK, which shows that organisations and employees themselves derive lots of benefits, such as improved productivity and wellbeing, from implementing a robust set of LGBT supportive policies and practices.

The cost of not having basic LGBT workplace inclusion is high especially for local companies in China. In 2020, a transgender woman won an employment discrimination case in Beijing against her employer, Dang Dang, a giant e-commerce firm, for illegally firing her during her leave of absence for gender reassignment surgery. The news not only attracted Weibo hashtag of 380 million views, it was also made into a 38-min documentary on the national television channel CCTV. The damage to its image and branding is beyond imagination. 

What is the situation at present?

Currently, foreign multinational companies such as EY are active in promoting LGBT inclusion in China because they have a global strategy, so are aware of the sensibilities of audiences in the West as well as the East. Another reason is that these companies have been driving other pillars of diversity and inclusion for the last decade such as gender equality. The LGBT pillar has now become impossible to ignore given the growing awareness around LGBT+ identities across the world.

Rather than treating it as corporate advocacy as in the Western world, global companies operating in China tend to treat promoting LGBT inclusion as part of their recruitment and talent strategies. Companies such as IBM leverage their recruitment channel in their official WeChat accounts to publish LGBT related posts, where details of their LGBT inclusive policies and benefits are shared. In 2021, 30 companies in mainland China joined the DNIC LGBT Job Fair and Workplace Conference to position themselves as LGBT friendly. EF and Nielsen took an extra step by creating a LGBT safe space through setting up gender neutral bathrooms and putting up “LGBT safe zone” posters respectively.

Chinese domestic companies, on the other hand, promote LGBT inclusion as part of their sales and marketing strategy to capture the ‘pink dollar’. For example, in 2020, Alibaba featured a gay male couple in the Chinese New Year commercial advertisement. Other local Chinese tech giants such as Baidu and Didi Chuxing also promote LGBT inclusion in their adverts in recent years. However, it remains less clear whether they have any significant internal LGBT inclusive policies that are being enforced across their organisations. The need to put in place basic anti-discrimination policies, diversity training, and management awareness raising/support guidance is clear from research in other countries.

A call for change

By coming out and showing her true self, Ms A not only lost her job but also got kicked out of home by her family. Without financial independence, LGBT individuals like Ms A suffered from long term discrimination from her family, friends and the society at large. Although homosexuality has been declassified as mental illness, there remains a lack of legal recognition for transgender and non-binary identities as well as other sexual minority identities, and the broader socio-economic empowerment of LGBT people remains lagging behind other countries. As employees in China dedicate more than eight hours a day at work, companies (foreign or local) have a role to play in creating an inclusive and psychologically safe space for employees to thrive.

Posted in: activism, Equality, Human Resources, Human rights


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