Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Apr 30, 2013

Career mistresses, and the truth about women holding up half the sky in China

GREATER CHINA - Wifely or motherly obligations take a back seat to financial independence in China, where accelerated changes in attitudes among women demand that marketers work to understand them in order to create brand experiences that build affinity, according to research by Starcom MediaVest Group.

32-year-old Guan from Dali posing with toothpaste brands she bought
32-year-old Guan from Dali posing with toothpaste brands she bought

It's no secret that Chinese women have evolved from submissive stereotypes of primary caregivers of the young/old to powerful feminine forces in the economy. But to what extent? Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, Starcom MediaVest Group involved 11,594 women in 26 cities across Greater China in a female-focused study.

The research also included two-hour, in-depth interviews with 68 women in Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenyang, Quanzhou, Dali, Hong Kong, Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung that Campaign Asia-Pacific participated in.

For women between their mid 20s and 40s, arguably the pivotal points of their lives, ambition is dominating their minds now, instead of family, as was the case in their age range in older generations, according to Tess Caven, human experience strategy director of North Asia at Starcom.

At a statistical level at least, career women in Greater China are coming into their own, with as many as 30 per cent of women taking senior management positions within companies (compared to 15 per cent in the USA, 23 per cent in the UK and just 11 per cent in Germany, according to a recent GTI survey).

"There's no difference between men and women these days—it's a competition of intelligence," said a 32-year-old Shanghainese interviewee surnamed Zhu. "Women are just as smart." 

"As a woman, I can focus on details, have more emotional interactions with my audiences, which men are not able to do," said Li, 34, an auctioneer of traditional Chinese paintings in Chengdu.

Many women, however, are not compensated fairly for these attributes. Monthly personal incomes of the women interviewed were at least RMB5,000, HK$20,000, or NT$40,000. But those amounts are only 2/3 of the salaries of their male counterparts.

"It's still a man's world, but women are making their own rules," said Caven. Brands should focus on teaching female consumers how to rise to the top with confidence, she recommended.

The study found that while many respondents view men as equals in the corporate world, nearly 88 per cent admit that marriage and babies make them less equal and limit their opportunities, citing practical scenarios like getting replaced when on materinity leave.

Instead of a vocation that comes naturally with marriage, motherhood has become an obligation that limits personal fulfilment now, according to Jeffrey Tan, national research and insights director of Greater China.

Lin, 41, a mother of a teenager in Chengdu, said, "I regret having to give up my job to take care of the family. I feel very insecure and dependent".

"I'm not willing to follow the path of my mother and sacrifice my own pleasure for that of family," said Shan, a 37-year-old single lady in Taichung.

Nicole, 23, a financial consultant in Hong Kong remarked, "I will lose out even more [at work] after I have a baby in future. Money is equivalent to status in society," she said, adding that her criteria for a husband include a monthly salary of HK$40,000.

Enormous pressure on women to marry well and produce a grandchild before the age of 30 is regarded as unfair among women in most upper-tier cities. They are fretting against this "pincer movement" of expectations, with education and marriage and motherhood shortly thereafter.

In Hong Kong, modern motherhood is even more pressurised as working moms in the city have one of the shortest maternity leave periods in the world and minimal support from the government for childcare.

More than 90 per cent of all women in all markets agree that finding the right man to marry is important. And for many, that right man is right because of his bank balance.

That criteria is thrown into an-already tough dating game with more complications such as unequal male-female ratios and a collision of traditions. Men want to marry down, while women want to marry up, because it gives them a sense of being taken care of. So, most women crave the feeling of romanticism, real or borrowed—even married ones.

"The best time of my life was when my husband was courting me and giving me a ride on his tractor," gushed Huang, a 43-year-old woman from Quanzhou.

SMG suggests that brands tap into these emotional drivers (as they have always done): "Allow her to vicariously fulfil her fantasies, and feed her desires for impossible romance", the report said. Twenty-five per cent of singles watch dating programmes and are not averse to brand presence, according to the agency, opening up opportunities for branded content and programme integration.

While waiting for Mr Right, women turn to money as their honeys. While the most ambitious women in Greater China come from Hong Kong, Tier 1 and 2 women in China are not far behind.

For mainland women in particular, their career option is entrepreneurship, with financial independence as an overriding motivation. Given such sentiment, it comes as no surprise then that half of all Taobao stores are operated by women. Among young girls who are still in school, 90 per cent also want to start their own businesses.

Furthermore, according to the All China Women's Federation, there are already around 29 million female entrepreneurs in Greater China. "The entrepreneurial spirit was not as apparent in women of older generations," pointed out Caven.

Brands should empower these entrepreneur-wannabes with spaces to connect and exchange ideas, as well as provide support like financial advice, business planning, management strategies, she said.

Even in Dali, a tier-three city in Yunnan, Guan, a 32-year-old kindergarten teacher wants to do a complete career change to interior design. "It's an unfulfilled dream. With my experience with children, I can specialise in designing kids' rooms. They usually like blue because it's the colour of the ocean."

Her husband-to-be, she said during the interview, will help her with managing the sales side of her company since he is a real estate agent. But she is still boss, with profits going to her. He currently retains two-thirds of his pay and gives one-third to her.

In Taiwan however, where family-centric traditions are still strong, career women have adopted a more balanced stance, with many of them comfortable to stop or drop down a level at work in order to start a family. Su, 34, from Taichung, actually quit her job at 30 to conceive and get ready for motherhood.

Yet the drive for financial independence is getting more evident elsewhere. Ivy, 29, from the New Territories in Hong Kong, is married to a local man who runs a construction firm. She has the choice to be a stay-at-home mum, but she refuses. "I don't want to be despised if I don't work. Also, when asking money from your hubby, your tone can't be too unpleasant," said Ivy, whose main criteria for a husband before she got hitched was financial strength.

84 per cent of women expressed "a huge drive" to accumulate high levels of personal wealth, according to SMG. A niche group is taking personal charge of their financial destinies in an unprecedented way: as mistresses.

The actual focus of mistresses is, again, financial independence rather than love. Rather than being social deviants or colloquially "foxy villains" breaking up families, mistresses in China are in these roles more by choice than by chance, as sex becomes acceptable and legitimate in the quest for money.

A Chengdu mistress who cannot be named for sensitivity reasons, is married to a government official but has two "toy boys" on the side. University students especially view this as a get-rich-quick option in China.

For brands, the trick here is to maintain a neutral stance in any public social responses, advises SMG. The agency sees itself as an insights gatherer providing data to marketers. If the worldviews of consumers are skewed, it is up to clients whether to develop promotions according to these values, or take moral high ground to "correct" society at large. 

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