People cast judgment on one another virtually every moment of every day, and China is no different. What is perhaps surprising for some foreigners, however, is that your outward appearance matters a great deal in the Chinese workplace, to the point where it can make the difference between landing a job or not. Here’s what you need to know.
While some of us seek to be above superficiality, research shows that we make judgements about others within the first seven seconds of meetings them. Whether we like it or not, we are naturally judgmental beings.
Ivanka Trump is beloved by many Chinese people, both male and female. She’s perceived to be smart, powerful, knowledgeable, resourceful, talented, well-connected, brave and strong. But above all, she is beautiful. In fact, many Chinese people feel that of the litany of her characteristics, all are merely auxiliary to the most important: physical appearance.
While we all may try to avoid judging a book by its cover, it’s inevitable that we will. In the United States for instance, if someone has incredibly bad teeth we tend to discern that that this person has a general lack of self worth. While a smile certainly cannot capture a soul, we may judge it to.
A more practical example for the workplace is clothing; employers gauge candidates on their attire. Walk into an interview for an investment bank in jeans and a t-shirt and you’ll never be considered. Stroll into an interview for a janitorial position in a suit and tie and people might think you have ideas above your station.
Judging people is not a binary proposition. That is to say, it’s not whether or not we do judge people, but where we draw the line.
The problem in China is perhaps where the line is drawn when it comes to judging people by their appearance in the workplace.
Recent reporting has shown that some tech companies and government agencies engage in discriminatory practices in the hiring process. Job adverts dictate that women should be slim and attractive, while others advertise for “male only” roles.
For years, the airline industry was guilty of this, as only the tallest and prettiest women served as stewardesses. Being tall makes sense as you need to stow luggage in the overhead compartments, but I fail to see a correlation between high cheek bones and air safety preparedness.
I have seen similar practices laid bare in the Chinese workplace. I once worked with two teachers, both of whom were blonde Americans. Both were incredibly lazy individuals for whom education wasn’t a profession but a means to an end. However, one was blessed with beauty and the other was not.
Informal surveys with students yielded some interesting results. Though most of the faculty recognised the two teachers’ equal deficiencies, one stood out above her peer, according to the pupils.
One student relayed to me, verbatim, “I think she’s a better teacher because she’s so much prettier.” The great thing about kids is they don’t feel the need to mince words.
Beauty is not inherently bad and shouldn’t be viewed as such. That would be discriminative in the opposite direction. That being said, a line is crossed when hiring decisions are made on this criteria. If beauty were the primary attribute in all employment decisions we’d live in a very different world.
What is bad, however, is that this discriminatory practice is amplified across certain segments of society in China. It disproportionately affects women. I’ve run across many male laoban (or bosses) in China who have less than desirable appearances. Many men in positions of power are overweight and don an disheveled appearance they perhaps wouldn’t tolerate from female coworkers.
Anecdotally, I’ve seen prettier coworkers treated with more respect than their counterparts with greater qualifications and experience. Hierarchies within a given firm should be established on meritocratic determinants, but in China this is not always the case.
For many foreigners, especially men, this might not be of utmost concern. I’ve worked with old, overweight and admittedly less-than-gorgeous expat men, and it seems to matter not. They usually get hired, even though the same standards may not be applied to local Chinese women.
White foreigners seem to be especially desirable, whether they’re outwardly “attractive” or not. This effect can be seen in a very obvious way in China, as some jobs advertisements read “Whites only” or “Caucasian only”, setting society back a few years with each successive ad.
Racism and prejudice toward non-white foreigners is real and palpable in China. White employees tend to be more desirable for Chinese companies because of so-called “consumer tastes”. This is by no means ubiquitous, as a huge number of Chinese people I’ve meet are very smart and open, but a bias in the Chinese workplace undoubtedly exists.
In short, looks matter a great deal when it comes to getting jobs in China. A slim, pretty, young woman is much more likely to be hired than the opposite. A white person is more likely to be hired than other expats.
Obviously, this is less than ideal and something we all must seek to remedy. Slowly things may start to change, but at the moment foreigners in China will find themselves having to grapple with this sort of overt discrimination.
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Keywords: Chinese Workplace
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