In October 2015, when I solicited Chinese readers’ views on gender issues in journalism, one comment spoke volumes about the state of the debate in China: “Women can take advantage of their looks and feminine traits to attract well-known and powerful men to accept their interviews.”
The comment, from a male respondent who chose to remain anonymous, reflects a widely held though increasingly antiquated view that far from facing gender limitations, women journalists in China frequently use sexual appeal to their advantage.
Contrasting with that view was a response from Feng Zhaoyin, a female reporter for Hong Kong-based Initium Media, who said, “As a young female journalist, sometimes older men I interviewed refused to take me seriously. They had the attitude that the newspaper should have sent a man to interview them for such serious topics.”
Discussions of the role of female journalists in China often elicit such diametrically opposed viewpoints, and my informal survey was intended to shed light on the topic. In addition to comments gathered through posts on WeChat and Weibo, China’s two biggest social media platforms, I interviewed several former and current female and male journalists from TV stations, news websites, and newspapers in China. Though not a scientific survey, the responses I received were both enlightening and contradictory. Clearly, gender bias is a volatile subject in China today.
A male former website editor for Phoenix TV, Zhuo Yuzhen, said he “rarely heard of” instances of sexual harassment during his tenure in the field of journalism. Yet Zhao Sile, a female freelance journalist, told me, “Instances of female journalists being harassed? How many and how big of a name do you want?”
Such perceptual disconnect illustrates the kinds of challenges Chinese female journalists face.
China’s news industry is vast. In addition to countless news websites, blogs, and social media accounts that are constantly being shut down and recreated, mainland China in 2014 reported having 1,915 print newspapers with a circulation of 132 million, and by late 2015, there were more than 208,000 journalists with press cards, of which 47 percent were women. Some reports estimate that the total number of journalists, including those who do not hold press cards, may actually exceed one million, with a little over half of them being women. Those numbers represent a steady uptick in female journalists.
Still, the increase in the number of working female journalists during the past two decades does not correspond to the high percentage of female journalism graduates today. For years, women have far outnumbered men among journalism school graduates in China. In 2006, 65 percent of masters students in journalism at Sichuan University, one of China’s most prominent universities, were women. In 2012, two thirds of all graduate students at the Communication University of China, among China’s foremost media education institutions, were women. Eighty percent of the 245 journalism students in the class of 2017 at Anhui University, a major public university, are women.
The question is: Why do so many women with journalism degrees not become working journalists? The answer may have something to do with those divergent approaches to the role of gender in journalism.
China’s press environment is notoriously stifling, with frequent government interference and stringent government control. Female journalists face additional cultural and political barriers. Within the realm of allowed topics, some journalists have been able to publish important work and receive recognition, but most of them are men. Many of the journalists who offered their input on the topic believe the barriers women journalists face, including gender discrimination in hiring, are part of the reason there has not been a greater increase in the number of female journalists despite the growing number of female journalism graduates.
Gender discrimination in hiring for many professions is widespread in China. According to a 2014 survey, 86.6 percent of recent female college graduates said they had been subjected to at least one instance of gender-based discrimination when seeking jobs. Job announcements sometimes include the notation “males only” or “males preferred,” or require women to have a higher degree for the same position. This happens despite several laws prohibiting gender discrimination in employment.
“Usually, organizations don’t want to hire women who have plans to have children soon,” Zhuo Yuzhen said. “I know this is wrong but I have to admit that I took applicants’ family plans into consideration while I was recruiting new journalists. Think about it: Not long after you hire someone, she goes on to take six months of maternity leave.”
Li Sipan, a former reporter for Southern Metropolis and now a PhD student in sociology at Macau University, told me that female journalists have made inroads and sparked resistance. Many newspapers, she said, have a preference for male journalists but struggle to find qualified male candidates. “Over the years, I’ve heard many human resources people in newspapers complaining about there being too many female journalists and they want to recruit more male journalists,” she said. “However, if you look at the applicants’ resumes, a lot of female applicants graduated from overseas universities and top-tier Chinese universities. You don’t see many male applicants from reputable schools.” Though Lipan did not offer any research to back up the claim, she added, “The quality of female applicants overall is much better than males.”
There has likewise been resistance to career advancement for female journalists. A 2013 survey of more than 600 female journalists in Shanghai found that 60 percent believed women are discriminated against when being considered for promotions. A 2011 survey conducted by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that women held only 7.7 percent of top-level management positions in Chinese news companies.
“The distrust in women’s ability to lead is deeply rooted,” said Li Sipan, who is also a women’s rights advocate. “I have a good friend who was a key editorial member in a fashion and lifestyle media company. She used to be annoyed by my feminist theories. One time, her company was going to publish a new magazine. She thought, given her expertise and experience, she would be selected to lead the magazine. But instead of choosing her to be the editor-in-chief, the company leadership brought in a man who clearly had less aptitude than her to be her boss. She told me that at that moment, she suddenly realized what gender discrimination is and what a glass ceiling is.”
When discussing female role models in Chinese journalism, two names often come up: Hu Shuli and Jiang Yiping. Hu founded Caijing and Caixin, two leading financial magazines, and was listed among Time magazine’s “Top 100 Influential People” in 2011 and Forbes‘ “100 Most Powerful Women” in 2014. Jiang, the former deputy editor-in-chief of Southern Media Group, a liberal-leaning media conglomerate in Guangdong province, is known for pioneering critical political op-ed writing in China.
While the professional ascents of women such as Hu and Jiang are typically viewed as extraordinary, they are often attributed to the women’s personal connections. “Female journalists like Hu and Jiang are extremely talented and hard-working women, but at the same time they are also the children of Communist Party leaders,” said a female reporter who asked to remain anonymous because she knows Hu and Jiang personally. “It’s almost impossible to achieve what they’ve achieved in journalism if you are not the daughter or wife of a powerful man.”
Hu’s maternal grandfather was a well-known translator and an editor of Shen Bao, one of the earliest and most influential newspapers in modern China. Her mother was a senior editor at Worker’s Daily in Beijing. Her father was part of a Communist cadre in a trade union. Jiang’s father was a Communist revolutionary who fought in the country’s civil war and later became one of the youngest leaders in Guangdong province.
Hu and Jiang did not respond to emails inquiring whether their connections helped them to overcome gender bias.
In general, female journalists receive substantially fewer accolades and major journalism awards in China, partly because they tend to be limited in the topics they are assigned to cover, but sometimes, according to one journalist, due to overt gender bias. A 2011 study of two official journalist prizes, the China Journalism Award and the Changjiang and Taofen Award, found that women constituted 19.6 percent of the winners and less than seven percent of the judges between 1991 and 2009.
“I once did an investigative story on sexual harassment,” recalled one female reporter who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions. “After we ran the story, the victim went on to take the case to court and eventually won. It was big news that year. But I only got the bronze medal in a year-end competition within our newspaper. I feel my reporting at least was as good as my male colleague’s that won the gold medal, and perhaps even better given that my subject was more original.”
Negative Chinese stereotypes of women as emotional and less logical and analytical can also cost women professional opportunities and hinder their career development. “The Chinese media industry’s most pronounced value statements often contain words like ‘rational’ and ‘constructive,'” said a veteran journalist, now a doctoral student in communication science at University of Wisconsin-Madison who goes by the pen name Hongniang Dingdang. “What are qualities of a good journalist-emotionally strong, rational, and objective. These are all considered traits that are inherently associated with men in our society. Men benefit from the system for just being men.”
The journalists I interviewed agreed that hard news stories-including disasters and issues related to politics, economics and the military-are more often assigned to male journalists. Coverage of family issues, fashion and entertainment-“soft news”-are more often assigned to female journalists. The hard news covered by men typically translates into the type of “big news” that results in professional recognition.
“I remember in 2003, when China launched its first manned space shuttle, journalists sent to Jiuquan, where the launch took place, were all men,” Hongniang Dingdang recalled. “During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, most of the journalists at the earthquake epicenter aftermath scene were men. A few female journalists who went there were able to interview soldiers of the rescue crew. Male journalists complained that their female counterparts got the opportunities because male soldiers like to talk to women. I thought to myself: Why don’t you guys think about how the vast majority of journalists given the opportunity to be at the scene are men in the first place?” Only 10 of the 41 journalists Southern Metropolis sent to cover the earthquake were women.
Some male journalists defended such division of labor because it protects female journalists from danger and hardship. Xu Honggang, an editor at Southern Metropolis, said, “Reporting on events like traffic accidents and fire accidents requires energy. Men are physically stronger.”
“If I were to make the decision, I would definitely not send a woman to go undercover to cover underground kidney trading,” said Zhuo Yuzhen, referring to an award-winning story on an organ trafficking ring in Zhejiang province in 2012. “As the boss, you are responsible for your subordinates’ safety.”
Among female journalists who responded to my online survey, some wrote about the gender issues they encountered in their careers, such as sexual harassment and discrimination in promotion decisions, while others discounted the notion of gender discrimination in journalism and said both men and women play on their respective strengths in reporting. Many male commenters, whether journalists or non-journalists, doubted the validity of the question itself, saying that female journalists are actually at an advantage. According to one commenter, “People are more acceptable to female journalists approaching them.” Another wrote, “Women, especially good-looking women, can get valuable intelligence easier.” And one alleged, “Women can sleep with male leaders to get what they want while men can’t.”
When I asked female journalists their opinions of such views, Zhang Xin, a former reporter for Chongqing TV who now lives and works in Europe, said she was familiar with such accusations. “People often think women who work in TV broadcasting all sleep around to get ahead,” Zhang said. “There are such cases, but they are definitely not as common as many people think. We work hard and late and our social circle is rather small.”
Li Sipan said the idea that women can use sex appeal for career advancement purposes is unrealistic. “To be a good journalist ultimately depends on the quality of your writing. I’ve never known anyone who can gain professional recognition and respect as a journalist by sleeping with whoever.”
Feng Zhaoyin said, “If women use their femininity to approach male interviewees, male journalists use their ‘brotherly affinity’ to get close to their sources as well.”
Zhao Sile said the perception that female journalists use their femininity to their advantage could be influenced by several recent high-profile scandals in China concerning government officials and female TV anchors. For example, in 2013, a series of anchors at China’s state-owned TV broadcaster, CCTV, were reportedly under investigation for illicit involvement with top Communist Party leader Zhou Yongkang, former head of the state police, judiciary, and foreign and domestic intelligence services.
Li Sipan said the stigmatization of female journalists could also be due to men feeling threatened by female journalists’ increasing numbers and prominence. Although the number of female journalists has not kept pace with the number of journalism graduates, both are increasing. And despite the fact that fewer female journalists receive awards and accolades, their prominence is slowly growing.
Lüqiu Luwei, formerly a journalist for Phoenix TV and now a PhD student in the College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, became a household name in China in 2003 when she became the first female Chinese war correspondent to cover the Iraq War. Dubbed “The Rose in the War Zone,” she received extensive media attention, though much of it focused on her gender rather than her work.
“It’s a reflection of our time,” Lüqiu said of the emphasis on her gender. She compared it with journalist Christiane Amanpour covering the Gulf War in the early 1990s. “I don’t really mind people emphasizing my gender identity,” she said, “but when there is an opportunity, I always raise the point that what matters in reporting is my experience, not my gender.”
Lüqiu believes the novelty of women reporting in dangerous situations is fading. “I’m seeing changes,” she said. “When media outlets use females reporting from conflict zones as a selling point nowadays, Chinese viewers no longer buy it.”
Yaqiu Wang is CPJ’s Northeast Asia correspondent. She has a Master of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University. Her articles on civil society and human rights in China have appeared in publications including Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, and China Change.