Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Tencent Apologizes for Sexually Graphic Game at Annual Party

  • Incident highlights pervasive sexism in the tech industry
  • Company issues statement condemning the onstage display

Tencent Holdings Ltd. apologized for a sexually suggestive game organized at a division’s annual party, after video of the onstage display ignited criticism and discussion about the challenges women still face in China’s technology community.

Attendees at the instant messaging department’s annual dinner posted footage of kneeling female staff seemingly trying to prise open water bottles tucked between men’s legs -- with their mouths. The video footage was posted online and circulated on Twitter and other social media.

Tencent, known for its WeChat messaging service and industry-leading games platform, issued a statement condemning the inappropriateness of the game on Chinese social media site Zhihu, vowing never to repeat such mistakes. Spokeswoman Canny Lo declined to comment further.

The incident again highlighted the matter-of-fact sexism that pervades the workplace in China, even among companies considered the most progressive. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. was forced to pull a job ad two years ago seeking women with porn-star qualities to be office cheerleaders for programmers. JD.com Inc once invited a Japanese porn star to a company event, despite authorities banning adult films online. None of Tencent’s C-suite executives, board members nor division chiefs are women.

While gender-bias is acknowledged as an issue in Silicon Valley and across the technology industry, it’s less publicly debated and sometimes openly encouraged. Luo Mingxiong, founder of venture capital firm Jingbei, told a packed conference audience this year it’s best to “usually not invest in female CEOs.” He said women underperform men in every sector apart from giving birth. The comments caused an uproar but also drew support on Weibo.

“I’m quite shocked that this happened at Tencent,” said Rui Ma, a former investor at 500 Startups., who’s currently in the process of creating her own fund. “On not investing in women, it was quite surprising that someone would say it in public, but not surprising that a lot of the funds hold this view in private,” she added.

The latest incident emerges just as China’s technology community is beginning to win praise for abolishing sexism. Some point to the emergence of influential VC founders such as Kathy Xu of Capital Today, Anna Fang of Zhenfund and Chen Xiaohong, who created H Capital, the largest fund ever raised by a woman. Alibaba’s been lauded for having more high-level female executives than its peers: The company counts 11 women among the 34 partners that nominate a majority of the company’s board. 

“A workplace with no respect for women is toxic,” said Pocket Sun, founder of Sogal Ventures. “This tells us how hostile the environment still is.”

Mao Zedong famously said women hold up half the sky. Yet women remain vastly under-represented in corporate China, whether it’s in the state enterprises that make up its bulk or the new generation of privately run concerns. Unlike in the U.S., Chinese employees have little legal recourse when responding to sexism in the workplace.

Daisy Qiu, founder of Shanghai-based women’s career consultancy Rui Wen, called the incident at Tencent’s party a “public insult” and a sign of how tolerant society remains towards the issue.

“It’s quite shocking because my impression was that things were improving. And then this happens,” said Charlotte Han, a Beijing-based partnership manager at 500 Startups and co-founder of Lean in China, which helps women develop careers. “A lot of stereotype challenges that Chinese women face come from social and culture expectations.”

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