BEIJING— Fresh out of college and facing a mountain of debt, the 21-year-old woman was searching online for jobs when she hit upon a listing that sounded perfect: administrative assistant at a tutoring school in Beijing. She sent in her resume, then reread the ad and noticed that only men were asked to apply for the position.
"I got no response, so I called and asked: If I'm qualified but I'm not male, will I still be considered? The woman who answered said if the ad says men only, it's men only," she recalled.
"I really wanted the job. It was already July, past the peak job-finding season, and I had loans to pay."
Through a nonprofit social justice and public health group, she connected with a lawyer and, after a battle lasting more than a year and a half, won China's first gender employment discrimination case.
In December, Juren Academy's principal apologized in court for the men-only ad, and the school agreed to pay about $5,000 in compensation to the woman, who adopted the pseudonym Cao Ju during the high-profile proceedings to shield herself from possible negative fallout.
China's constitution says all citizens are equal, and the country has laws barring employment discrimination on the basis of gender. In practice, though, regulations are often flouted, enforcement by regulators is lax, and until now courts have been unwilling to take up workplace gender bias cases.
But Cao, her attorney and many other young women like them have started pushing back, challenging blatant discrimination and demanding action from companies, government officials and courts. They are increasingly organizing through nonprofits, professional associations and educational networks; Beijing recently even got its own chapter of the Lean In organization, inspired by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
"A lot of women are now taking a tougher stand; they are no longer willing to tolerate routine abuses and discrimination that have been going on for decades in the workplace," said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group. "Increasingly, they're backed by civil society organizations … not only to file legal proceedings but to do publicity and use social media and traditional media to publicize the individual cases and the wider issues they address."
Beijing's Working Committee on Women and Children, a government panel, reported in a 2011 study that more than 61% of women said they suffered discrimination in the job search process.
Hurdles faced by women in China's employment market, even for government jobs, might come as a surprise to foreigners. Female applicants are often asked whether they have a boyfriend or plan to have a baby soon. Female university graduates taking the nation's civil service exam are questioned about the details of their menstrual cycles, including the age when they got their first period.
"What does it have to do with work?" one woman complained in an interview with the state-run publication China Youth Daily. "Do they think someone whose period starts on the first is more capable for this job than someone whose period starts on the 10th?"
A 2012 study on gender discrimination in employment ads in China looked at more than 1 million online postings and found that more than 10% expressed a preference for male or female applicants. Ads seeking men were more likely to request older, experienced workers, and ads seeking women frequently specified tall, attractive applicants no older than 25, researchers Peter Kuhn of UC Santa Barbara and Kailing Shen of Xiamen University said.
Last winter, a group of women in eight cities complained about such sex-specific ads posted by 267 employers on a popular job website called Zhaopin. The website quickly removed all the postings.
Many women still feel uncomfortable raising their voices individually about discrimination and say they don't know where to turn for support. In a survey last fall of more than 400 women, Lean In Beijing found that 44% had experienced gender discrimination on the job and that 91% had never heard of an organization devoted to women's professional development.
The Sunflower Women Workers Center, a nonprofit in the southern city of Guangzhou, found in a fall survey of female factory employees that 70% of respondents said they had been sexually harassed at work and that more than 15% had quit jobs because of harassment. None had sought help from a trade union or women's group.
But Huang Yizhi, Cao's 28-year-old attorney, said she sees hopeful signs. After taking on Cao's case in the summer of 2012 and running into multiple hurdles trying to get the lawsuit to be accepted by a court in Beijing, publicity about her experience prompted an outpouring of support and action.
A group of young women staged a song-and-dance protest in front of Juren Academy. Later, a woman in Guangzhou, having read about Cao's battle, complained about other discriminatory employment ads to the city's labor bureau, Huang said, and won an apology and token damages.
Seeking redress for her client, Huang filed complaints with the labor bureau and court authorities. Groups of female students and lawyers sent letters to the court and local government bodies, urging action.
Finally, in August 2013, Huang received word that the court would hear the case. She and Cao submitted their evidence, including an incriminating recording of Cao's conversation with Juren Academy staff about the men-only ad.
On the day of the trial, Dec. 18, Cao recalled, she was nervous. "I had never been to a court before. I was looking forward to it, but I didn't know what was going to happen."
She was shocked to find that dozens of female college students were in attendance to show their support, cramming two and three to a seat.
Even more surprising? When the proceedings started, the principal of Juren did not contest Huang and Cao's complaint but immediately apologized. When the academy's lawyer offered $500 in compensation — as opposed to the $8,300 Huang and Cao had asked for — the principal cut him off and offered $5,000, which the women accepted.
"We didn't expect the result to be so positive," Huang said.
The principal suggested that she use the money to fund outreach and education on women's employment rights. Cao says she'd like to, but isn't quite sure how to go about it yet. She is now working for an education consulting company.
Despite her legal victory, she's been keeping a low profile. She still uses the pseudonym and does not allow her full face to be photographed by the news media, in part because she fears she might have trouble getting a job in the future if employers regard her as a troublemaker.
She has never even told her parents, who are farmers in Shanxi province southwest of Beijing, that she was the plaintiff in the case, and only one of her friends knows.
"I didn't want to make my friends or family anxious. I felt uneasy myself dealing with courts and judges, and I didn't want them to feel this too," she said. "This court case has been a channel for me to deal with my anger about the discrimination, but it's risky and I need to keep my privacy."
Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.