Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Aug 5, 2016

Gender equality: Do social pressures, not bias, hold women back?

The rise of women leaders in China’s ad industry stands in sharp contrast to the residual stigma about ‘leftover women’.

In perspective: Determined women can rise to the very top in China, despite push to conform.
In perspective: Determined women can rise to the very top in China, despite push to conform.

Less stigma about female leadership in China means there is no obvious ‘glass ceiling’ limiting the careers of women with drive and ambition — but advertising executives say societal pressures around marriage and parenting continue to deter many from reaching their full potential and form a persistent barrier to progress towards a gender-balanced industry.

Unlike in the West, where conversations around the ‘glass ceiling’ centre around conscious, or unconscious, doubts about female competency within a corporate environment, women in Mainland China tend to have more of an equal chance at leadership.

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Instead, they have to battle against an oppressive social culture that believes that a woman, however successful, is a failure if she isn’t married and a mother by the age of 30. 

TBWA Greater China CEO, Joanne Lao says hang-ups about the derogatory “leftover women” tag cause women to pull back from pursuing an ambitious career path. 

Tan Tze Kiat, CEO of BBDO Greater China, says she has met women who walked away from top roles for fear it would jeopardise their chances at a family. “Chinese women themselves are saying, ‘I need a life, and time for husbands and children’,” says Tan, who has two daughters herself.

“I had a great account director who wanted to go back to Malaysia to be a good mum instead of being promoted. 

“Another art director was successful in her field until she had a child at 33. She thought she could afford to leave her job for a while to look after her baby without hurting her career. Now 37 years old, she has problems getting rehired because after such a long maternity leave, her skills are outdated.”

For women who have either leapt the marriage hurdle or have opted to face down societal pressure, however, the path to the boardroom is relatively open to them. 

In May, Publicis Media Greater China CEO, Bertilla Teo, named women to CEO roles for each of the four agency brands under her purview: Sapna Nemani at Starcom, Siew Ping Lim at Zenith, Scarlett Shih at MediaVest Spark, and Sandy Lai at OptiMedia Blue 449.

WPP China’s Bessie Lee, and Isobar’s Jean Lin and Jane Lin-Baden have long been poster girls for female executives in the industry. Sheena Jeng from Publicis Worldwide China, meanwhile, is one of the rare female creatives in the market.

On the client side in China, there is strong and recognised female leadership as well: Asmita Dubey from L’Oréal, Jalin Wu from Uniqlo, Weiwei Yao from PepsiCo, Joey Wat from KFC, Vivian Pan from Visa and Freda Wang from Mercedes-Benz, to name a few.

“At the professional level, women are not treated in a discriminatory way or unfairly; there are equal opportunities for us,” says Tan. 

In fact, these women who “persist in climbing the ladder” often achieve higher ranks, faster, than their Western sisters, says Dianne Brak, CEO of Creative Fuse.

Nevertheless, female leaders are still a relatively new phenomenon in China. When Teo announced her all-female CEO lineup for Publicis Media, she was still asked why “it’s all women”. “Nobody would care if it’s an all-male cast, but why question when it’s all women?” she says. “Maybe I’m so used to operating in this environment. I’m not so fussed about whether it’s a man or woman who leads. It’s business as usual.” 

Teo adds that she has yet to come across a woman who declined career advancement. 

Family first

Despite the existence of a number of high-profile female high-fliers, overall, the ratio of women-to-men in the top tier of China’s advertising industry is just one to nine, states Brak, of Creative Fuse, based on a survey specifically for this article. “It seems obvious that China is lagging behind the rest of the world. I think this is due to strong family values and the importance of family life in a female’s mind,” she says, adding that this defies logic as Chinese women make three-quarters of all purchase decisions.

BBDO’s Tan explains that the creative industry’s long hours and the nature of the job can make women feel forced to choose between career or family. “Churning out ideas at 2am, spontaneously, means more stress,” she says. “More stress than account-servicing jobs that have set procedures and processes.”

For better or for worse, family life is paramount in China. Debby Cheung, China president of Ogilvy Public Relations, says that can mean careers take a back seat.

“Chinese working women will start preparing for pregnancy one year before, in a widely-accepted practice called ‘bèi-yùn’ [‮٣‬ئ٪٪], and they are not shy to tell everyone,” she says. This social practice, which isn’t observed in other Chinese-speaking to countries, could be read as a message to her bosses to dial back ahead of maternity leave. “This will definitely impact her career. But, if having a family comes first, that is a personal preference.”

Sexist views

Another hurdle women have to overcome in the industry is overt sexism from male colleagues. Women in account-servicing roles within advertising and PR firms face “huge prejudices” in terms of their looks versus what they can do, reveals Jacqui Barratt, director at Font Talent. “I have heard it myself from CEOs who look me in the eye and tell me that the reason their clients stay is because their account managers look so hot,” she says. “It’s never great.” 

Charles Voon, GM of TBWA Digital Arts Network, shares a quote from an anonymous female colleague that echoes this: “I was told to use my hotness instead of my smarts to get ahead.” This quote, among many others, was collected as part of TBWA’s #TakeTheLead2020 internal initiative to increase female leadership within the agency globally by 20 per cent by 2020.

“These are real issues that are happening in the industry,” adds TBWA’s Lao. “These stereotypes are holding people back — both men and women. I’d personally like to create a professional world in China where women feel like they do not have to choose, but can have both  family and a career. From that perspective, being ‘leftover’ is a choice that is accepted positively and not a degrading description.”

Our View: It’s a case of the devil and the deep sea, but a satisfying career and family life can and should go hand in hand.

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