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China's Aim To Reverse A Declining Birth Rate May Increase Job Discrimination

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After generations of restricting most families to one child, China is encouraging families to have up to three. It's an effort to address an aging population. But it puts working women in a difficult position. Women say they already face employment discrimination because companies don't want the cost of maternity leave and child care. And that discrimination is likely to get worse.

NPR's Emily Feng reports how explicit the discrimination is.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Earlier this year, April Wu thought about leaving her job as an auditor at a Big Four accounting firm. She thought it would be easy to find another finance job in Beijing. She was wrong. Wu reads aloud the job openings she's found so far.

APRIL WU: (Reading, through interpreter) A securities firm is looking for someone with two to five years of auditing experience, CPA-certified, must be male.

See, the postings all say men are preferred.

FENG: She reads another job advertisement.

WU: (Reading, through interpreter) IPO experience needed, male required.

See, your gender is just as important as your education and your work experience.

FENG: Wu did find one opening that specified women.

WU: (Reading, through interpreter) Required - women who are unmarried or married but with children and a degree from a top school.

FENG: Married but with children, therein exposing what employers really fear - that under China's new three-child policy, they will have to pay for maternity leaves. And so they often prefer not to hire women, who could have children. Wu says, that means it's women who pay the social and professional costs for raising families.

WU: (Through interpreter) Women are unilaterally shouldering the cost of child-rearing. This was the most fundamental reason for this workplace discrimination.

FENG: Wu may be surprised to discover this, but employment lawyers are not.

Huang Yizhi, who litigated one of the first successful workplace discrimination lawsuits, says, employers still have subtle ways of eliminating female applicants.

HUANG YIZHI: (Through interpreter) For instance, a female applicant may only get irrelevant questions during her job interview, which are clearly not meant to evaluate her candidacy.

FENG: In 2015, Huang helped a woman win a public apology from a company that initially would not let her even apply for a chef's position. They argued she was distracting as a woman and not physically strong enough. Now that China's three-child policy is in effect, Huang says, existing prejudices against hiring women will only increase because employers think women's child-raising responsibilities will overshadow their professional ones.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) The government needs to put money where its mouth is. We need to see how much money it actually spends to support gender equality.

FENG: China's cabinet has said they're encouraging local governments to better fund maternity leave and give child tax credits. There's talk of creating more public child care centers. After all, having more babies means more future workers to power China's economic growth. But right now such measures are mostly left up to companies.

Here's Jane Sun, the CEO of Trip.com.

JANE SUN: When our females are pregnant, we offer taxi - free taxi to bring them to work and take them home. When the baby is born, we give them 800 as a gift, 3000 as education fee.

FENG: RMB 3,000 or about $500 - Trip.com is a Chinese travel booking company whose co-founder has long advocated for letting Chinese couples have more than one child.

SUN: It's not one policy will really stimulate the birthrate. But I think it takes many layers of efforts. The government needs to have their efforts and infrastructure. Enterprises need to do their part.

FENG: But not all companies can afford that.

April Wu, the finance worker, has steeled herself for further rejection. She's already gotten lots of questions and job interviews about her choice to have kids.

WU: (Through interpreter) Of course I'm going to say that I don't plan to have kids before 30. But your assurance is never as ironclad as a man's, who will never give birth.

FENG: Ninety percent of Wu's colleagues are men. And few of the women she works with are in management positions. She's starting to think she might just be better off not having any children.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.