At a staff dinner, the women were told to rate the attractiveness of the men at the table. During a team building exercise, a woman was pressured to sit on her male colleague in front of colleagues. Top executives exchanged indecent comments about male masculinity at corporate events and online.
E-commerce giant Alibaba, one of China’s most globalized internet corporations, has often celebrated the proportion of women in its leadership ranks. In 2018, the company’s multi-billion dollar co-founder, Jack Ma, told a conference in Geneva that one of Alibaba’s success stories was that 49 percent of its employees were women.
But that message of female empowerment is now being challenged after an Alibaba employee accused her boss of raping her after an alcoholic business lunch. The woman, identified only by her last name, Zhou, by the police and her lawyers, said her complaints had been handled by the superiors and the human resources department. Last month she finally resorted to yelling about the incident in a company canteen.
“A male Ali manager raped a female subordinate and no one in the company followed this up,” Ms. Zhou yelled, according to a video posted on the Internet.
Ms. Zhou’s case has caused an uproar within the company and throughout the Chinese technology establishment. Alibaba fired the man accused of rape, saying it would establish policies against sexual harassment and “firmly oppose the ugly forced drinking culture.” However, former Alibaba employees say the problems go much deeper than the company has admitted.
Interviews with nine former employees suggest that casual sexism is widespread at Alibaba. They describe a work environment in which women feel embarrassed and degraded during team building and other activities that the company has incorporated into its corporate culture.
The police investigation into Ms. Zhou’s case is ongoing. Alibaba appears to be trying to keep discussions on this issue under control. According to two people familiar with the matter, the company recently laid off 10 employees for leaking information about the incident. Most of the former employees who spoke to the New York Times asked to remain anonymous on fear of retaliation.
In a statement to the Times, Alibaba said promoting a safe and supportive workplace is its top priority.
“If we missed out, we believe in taking responsibility and holding ourselves accountable,” the statement reads.
Alibaba immediately made changes to the way it deals with workplace culture and wrongdoing after Ms. Zhou’s case became known, the statement said. Upon examining its policies and reporting processes, the company found that “certain areas did not meet our standards,” the statement said.
The statement did not address the specific allegations made by the former employees who spoke to the Times.
Many Alibaba departments use games and other ice breaking activities to keep coworkers comfortable. Kiki Qian joined the company in 2017. Her team greeted them with a charade game. When she lost, she said she was punished by “flying the plane,” as her colleagues called it. The stunt consisted of straddling a male colleague while he was sitting in an office chair. The colleague then lay back in the chair, causing Ms. Qian to fall face down on him.
“When I was serving the punishment, I realized it might be a little perverted,” Ms. Qian, 28, said in a telephone interview.
On another occasion, Ms. Qian said she saw a woman burst into tears after being pressured to jump into the arms of a male colleague during a team game.
Other former Alibaba employees said ice breaking rituals involved awkward questions about their sexual history. A former employee said that at a team dinner, she and other women were asked to rate their male colleagues based on their attractiveness. Another said she felt humiliated during a game that required staff to touch shoulders, back and thighs.
After Ms. Qian told her boss that she would no longer participate in such activities, she realized that she would never get anywhere at Alibaba, she said. In 2018 she quit.
None of the women who spoke to The Times thought of complaining to HR about their ice-breaking experiences. They said they were skeptical that their complaints would be taken seriously.
“There was no way to complain about it; it was a tradition with Ali, ”said Ms. Qian. “If you complain, people will think that you are the one who has the problem.”
Since its early years as a small start-up, Alibaba has tried to maintain a working environment with warm familiarity. Employees address each other with company nicknames. Managers are concerned about the private and family life of workers.
But as the company has grown into a giant with more than a quarter of a million employees, customs that once seemed playful now seem less innocent. In its pursuit of closeness and camaraderie, Alibaba has allowed crude, sexualized conversations in professional and sometimes very visible settings.
Mr. Ma, the co-founder, set the tone. Every May 10th, dozens of Alibaba employees and their spouses or partners attend a mock group wedding ceremony in celebration of the company’s “Ali Day”. At the 2018 event, Mr. Ma joked on stage about how Alibaba’s busy working hours were affecting employees’ sex lives.
“I heard that for some people it was seven times a day before they came to Alibaba, but not even in seven days after that,” he said. “That is a big problem.”
Mr. Ma continued the reef at the ceremony the next year.
“At work, we emphasize the 996 spirit,” he said, referring to the common practice among Chinese Internet companies of working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.
“In life we need 669,” said Mr. Ma. “Six days, six times.” The Mandarin word for “nine” sounds the same as the word for “long-lasting”. The crowd hooted and clapped.
Alibaba shared the remarks with a winking emoji on its official account on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Wang Shuai, the company’s public relations director, wrote on Weibo that Mr. Ma’s comments reminded him how good it is to be young. His post contained vulgar references to his anatomy.
Alibaba also gives its employees a manual with the morale-boosting “Alibaba slang”. Several entries are interspersed with sexual innuendos. You are encouraging employees to be “energetic and long-lived”.
Feng Yuan, a prominent feminist in China, said the behavior described at Alibaba can create the conditions in which bullying and harassment are tacitly tolerated and encouraged.
“In companies where men dominate, hierarchical power structures and toxic masculinity are reinforced over time,” said Ms. Feng. “They become breeding grounds for sexual harassment and violence.”
Last month, Ms. Zhou posted her rape allegations on Alibaba’s internal website. According to her account of the events, her boss said to a male customer who was also at the alcoholic business lunch, “Look how good I am to you; I brought you a beauty, ”referring to Ms. Zhou.
Drinkable meals have long been prevalent in China, where refusing to drink with a supervisor can be considered offensive. Three days after Ms. Zhou Alibaba reported the incident, her boss has still not been fired, she wrote on her account. She was told this was out of consideration for her reputation.
“That ridiculous logic,” she wrote. “Who are they protecting?”
Elsie Chen contributed the reporting and Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed to the research.