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Why Have Sexual Harassment Policies In China’s Biggest E-Commerce Company Changed?

China’s largest e-commerce group, Alibaba, has brought attention to the workplace culture and gender roles. The $534 billion company was already previously under scrutiny for antitrust and many other issues only making matters worse. Industry observers believe that this is a pivotal moment for the fight against China’s alleged misogynist technology industry.

In mid-August, an Alibaba employee posted on the company’s internal forum, a detailed account addressing the fact her manager and a client had sexually assaulted her whilst she was on a business trip. This account consisted of an 11-page document detailing how she was forced to drink and then sexually assaulted by her boss whilst unconscious. She later informed several managers but unfortunately, she failed to gain support from her superiors and human resources, leading to her taking the case to the public.

This naturally caused a lot of uproar and agitation from the public eye claiming that Alibaba’s ignorance towards the objectification of women in the technology industry had become too normalized. The public outrage also touched upon the long-standing business-drinking culture which has largely bypassed internet companies. However, this is not a rare case as women in other industries also suffer from many forms of discrimination shown through common phrases like ”men-only” and “male candidates preferred” being routinely written in job adverts. Within job interviews, female applicants are also forced into explaining their private relationship status and their future plans on having children. The normalized gender discrimination in the Chinese patriarchy makes the sexual harassment cases less surprising and more concerning.

Consequently, the company fired the accused perpetrator, two managers resigned and the firm’s head of HR was given a “disciplinary warning.” The CEO, Daniel Zhang, had quoted that he felt “shocked, angry and ashamed” about the incident, leading to him calling for a police investigation. Zhang wrote a letter stating that the incident highlights a “systemic” issue in the workplace culture. This forced Alibaba to formulate stronger and stricter company policies against sexual assaults in the workplace as they had surprisingly not been implemented at all before the incident.

Although discussion about the case had become largely widespread, the microblogging platform Weibo took days before the case reached the top of their trending chart, leading people to speculate whether this was because Alibaba owns a majority stake of Weibo. Their response to the situation was slow and weak. The company widely boasts about how they have a strong focus on ensuring Alibaba’s morals and values have been met. It was made aware that there was clear censorship in the search results when trying to find out about the case, possibly discouraging other women to take a stand as it will just become hidden.

The public, along with Alibaba’s employees, is striving for more changes to occur in the industry too. Due to this situation coming forward, industry observers believe that it may inspire other women at peer companies to come forward with their incidents instead of continuing to normalize them. The company was largely condemned and called out to “recalibrate” their cultures and that other companies too should take more caution in making “positive contributions to society in addition to making monetary profits” The toxic culture allowed by the technology sector is in need of increasing scrutinization and change to create a safer work environment for women.



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