Chinese start-ups hire attractive women to ‘motivate’ male coders

It might sound like something that belongs in an episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” which spoofs the eccentricities of US start-up culture, but this is real.

Start-up tech companies in China have come up with an unusual way to keep their employees — namely coders, programmers and engineers — happy and relaxed. Officially they’re called “programmer motivators” but they sound more like flirtatious cheerleaders.

Their role is to keep the other, predominantly male employees of the business content by chatting them up and looking after them.

According to The New York Times, the unusual job is proliferating in a society that largely adheres to gender stereotypes and believes that male programmers are “zhai,” or nerds who have no social lives — and an attentive and attractive woman is supposed to help that.

To bag the position, you need to be attractive and good at socializing and putting men at ease. And massages, you need to be able to give a good massage apparently.

They’re not exactly comfort women, but at the risk of hyperbole, there’s a similar unseemliness to the idea. Just imagine the outrage, the blood-boiling backlash if such a position was advertised in the West.

In the Wake of the Times report, Gizmodo said it was “just as sexist as it sounds” and said it was “hard not to see it as anything short of profoundly demeaning.”

But in China — the country with the world’s largest number of self-made female billionaires — many don’t see a problem with the nature of the job.

Shen Yue, 25, has a degree in civil engineering from a university in Beijing and works as a programmer motivator.

“They really need someone to talk to them from time to time and to organize activities for them to ease some of the pressure,” she told the Times.

The report recounted a scene during a day in the office when Shen approached a co-worker to provide him with a massage.

“The company’s intention is for me to give you a massage, though my technique might not be great,” she told her colleague before they both broke out in giggles.

One of the people at the company responsible for hiring Shen, who was also a woman, said applicants needed to have “five facial features that must definitely be in their proper order” and speak in a gentle way.

These roles aren’t exactly new.

The country’s e-commerce giant Alibaba (essentially China’s version of Amazon) advertised for a programmer motivator with “recognizably good looks” in 2015 but deleted the ad after being hit with criticism.

According to a job search website run by Chinese tech giant Baidu, just seven companies are currently advertising for such jobs, mostly at smaller start-ups.

Silicon Valley is frequently criticised for its male-dominated “bro culture” but parts of China’s workplace culture reportedly pale in comparison when it comes to gender stereotyping.

Some of the country’s biggest tech companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have used job ads to boast about the fact there are “beautiful girls” working for their companies, according to Human Rights Watch.

In a January job ad, Alibaba said it was looking for a sales manager. The ad said women were preferred, aged 28 to 35, “with a good personal image and class,” the Times reported.

While the reference to gender was later removed, such ads are not uncommon. But for many Chinese citizens, that’s not necessarily a problem.

Shen said she loves what she does and does not consider her job to be sexist.

“Many feminist ideas are too extreme now,” she said. “I think women should be independent, self-reliant and have self-respect. And that’s enough.”

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