Sitting in a locked-down block in Beijing’s hutongs, I’ve come to miss the dozen or so delivery drivers who regularly leave packages for me and my neighbors in the courtyard. Fang zai zhuozi shang—put it on the table—is probably my most often said Chinese sentence every day.

I read an interesting question the other day: Imagine you had to draw a delivery person. What would they look like?

They’d be on an e-bike, right? They’d be wearing a helmet, maybe in uniform, laden with takeaway boxes or hauling a cart behind them. They’d definitely be in a rush, always on the phone speaking fast. “Give me five minutes.” “I’ll leave it at the gate.” Or “Can I bother you for a five-star rating?”

TechNode’s weekly translation column delivers samples of the best Chinese reporting on tech to Squared members. TechNode has not independently verified the claims made in these articles.

So, did you imagine a woman?

It turns out I’m not the first person to ask myself, where are the women? The question above was first asked by Huxiu back in December 2018. According to the article, data from one large takeaway service in 2019 found that women account for only 10% of delivery drivers. In my experience, even 10% seems high. The chances of meeting a female delivery rider on the street, even before the present lockdown, was next to null.

People explain this away. If you asked a local cab driver or shopkeeper here, they’d probably say kuaidi or delivery people have such a physically demanding job that women can’t handle it. And they think it’s unsafe. But for some women, delivery is the only way they can achieve other more important goals in their lives. Huxiu found Zhang Ning riding a food delivery e-bike in Tianjin, and spoke to her about how she chose the job.

Zhang and her husband told the magazine that decided to become delivery riders as the job was relatively flexible. When they first entered the depot, Huxiu reports, her boss simply said, “I just want to recruit a female rider to see which of the men is less enthusiastic than you by the end of the month.”

The online article gives some backstory about the rider. Zhang, from Xinji in Hebei, is a mother of two, and the only woman in her cohort of 20 deliverers. She used to run a nail bar in Xinji, but when her elder daughter Xuan Xuan got sick, she moved her family to Tianjin in August 2017 so her child could have stem cell treatment at Tianjin Cancer Hospital.

Food delivery is certainly not an easy job. One thing is the urgency of making money fast, because each delivery nets so little. Then there’s all the climbing. It’s tough juggling orders—weighing up and optimizing delivery routes. Zhang said that the community in Tianjin where she works has lots of old-fashioned residential buildings, with not an elevator in sight. She’s exhausted every time she gets home, late, from the evening take-away rush. But she says the hard work can be a kind of relief, that the fast pace of work forces her to stay focused and fight for every order.

As Zhang told Huxiu, “Before Xuan Xuan’s illness, I had trouble sleeping. Now when I lie down I fall asleep immediately. I have no energy to think of anything else.”

But Huxiu also describes some pressures a man probably wouldn’t face. Zhang tells the magazine that she worries too little effort goes on tending to her younger daughter. She wonders whether performing on Douyin might be better for the family, because then at least she would also be at home with the kids.

Delivery drivers get just two days off a month. On a rare trip to her hometown last November, Zhang visited her mother and gave her some shoes she’d bought online. Her mother asked about Zhang’s future plans. “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it yet,” Zhang Ning replied after a pause. Should she continue doing deliveries, to pay back those who’ve lent her thousands of yuan to treat her daughter’s cancer?

Zhang has responsibilities as a mother, carer, daughter, and takeaway driver. But I notice that the article hardly talks about her husband’s role, apart from mentioning that both have chosen flexibility in their jobs.

The article worries: “Sometimes she forgets about her feminine side.”

Open her photo album and you will find another side: the party girl, selfies with her friends. Her wedding photos and art hanging at home. In one, Xuan Xuan had long hair and was wearing a cute white skirt.”

From the outside, Zhang may look like a gender warrior, fighting for the right to ride. But for her, she becoming a delivery rider was no such choice. Her past self was simply sacrificed while she played her other roles. Perhaps after everything is calm, she will be able to explore what this experience means to her as a person: a capable and strong Zhang Ning in charge of her life. But that time has not yet come.

So are the missing women just avoiding the jobs? Another article makes it clear that discrimination must also play a large part in it. According to Ma Hu, an aspiring postal delivery rider featured on Netease Women’s Gender Equality thread back in 2016, “Some jobs may not be suitable for most women, but that doesn’t mean that they are not suitable for all women.”

Ma was highlighted by Netease Women after winning a prize in the 2015 Women’s Media Awards as an “outstanding woman.”  She received it for successfully suing a postal company for gender discrimination.

Ma studied the arts, but said she wanted to take up a more unusual career. “In her job interview, Ma said she wanted to join the postal delivery profession because she enjoyed meeting many strangers every day and feeling free to travel the city.”

The article says Ma was rejected at interview on the grounds of being female. In January 2016, she took the postal service to court for “violating her personal rights.” Three public hearings later, the Shunyi People’s Court concluded that she had suffered employment discrimination. On Oct. 20, the company was forced to pay her medical fees, appraisal fees, and damages for mental distress.

While Zhang rides her routes and suffers in silence, planning to reflect on what her job choice means to her as a woman when things have settled down, Ma takes a more proactive approach. It is clear that she felt the need to speak up in the hope that things would change. As she put it in the interview, “If no one was making a fuss about these kind of things, how would anyone know the government’s attitude?” According to Netease Women, Ma now works for a social organization: “The more fights she takes on, the more seriously gender issues in the workplace are being taken.”

Heather Mowbray translates economics and social interest stories from her loft in the Beijing hutongs, where she's lived for a decade. She is training to be an interpreter so she can finally interact with...

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