Mar 1st, 2017

Joan Xu Uncovers China’s Female Tribes

Joan Xu

Originally born in Shanghai, Joan Xu grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and made the big move to New York for university. While in the States, she worked for WPP in both the New York and Seattle offices before she returned to China in 2014.

Joan’s globetrotting has given her a unique perspective on gender and society, particularly in the modern workforce. Now as JWT Shanghai’s Associate Planning Director, she is deeply involved in JWT’s living Female Tribes study and is excited to be shedding more light on the conversation about women in China.

Joan shared her excitement with us when we sat down with her to chat about China’s Female Tribes and what the research has revealed about Chinese women today.

What was the first thing that jumped out at you when you looked at China’s Female Tribes data?

One of the first things I realized about the data was just how much thirst there was from women in China to have someone out there who they feel connected to and who understands their aspirations and fears. This struck a nerve at the time and I thought to myself, “THIS is what our advertising can do. This is the kind of work I want to do.” The data points that resonated with me the most are the ones that really demonstrated the difference in how Chinese women perceive the lack of female role models versus how women globally perceive it:

  • 89% of women in China said they wish they’d seen more female role models growing up, versus 74% globally
  • 90% of women in China want to see more inclusion of female achievement in history books, versus 81% globally
  • 68% of women in China said they found it hard to relate to female characters in films and on TV, versus 53% globally

What did the research reveal about how Chinese women view work and money? 

Chinese women believe that personal success starts with financial freedom. Chinese women have been in the labor force for decades, and their career is an important part in how they define success. In the study, we found that 88% of women in China said that having a job/career is important to them, versus 79% globally. 

China’s economy has grown rapidly, but societal mindsets and government policies often move at a much slower pace. We see clear indications of this in the beliefs of Chinese women, particularly among the millennials: 

  • 63% of women in China felt that they had been held back professionally as a woman, versus 44% globally. 
  • 55% of women in China say they experience sexism at work regularly, versus 40% globally. 
  • 41% of women in China say they feel their boss talks down to them because they are women, versus 35% globally.

Despite Chinese women’s agreement on the importance of education, they were very much aware that they are still not supported at the same level as their male counterparts. In fact, 91% of Chinese women in our survey felt that their government should do more to focus on education for women – compared to the 78% all-market average. And 32% of Chinese millennial women feel social norms/conventions are one of the greatest barriers for Chinese millennial women to achieve their full potential.

What are Chinese women’s views on relationships?

At every age group, Chinese women are focusing more and more on self-love and empowerment rather than relying on someone else. The top 3 traits of Chinese millennial women today: independent (51%), aggressive (50%), and passionate (45%). Many said that working in an industry that interest them is more important than being loved.

At the same time, Chinese women are realizing their power in femininity. Across all markets, 49% of women felt that their attractiveness/femininity could be used as a means of power or influence. This was significant in China with 63% in agreement. Millennial women were much more likely to feel they could use their femininity as a means of power.

I noticed that the data on Chinese women and technology was fairly strong too. What are your thoughts on this part of the research?

Yes, 92% of Chinese women feel that technology has empowered them (highest of all markets surveyed), compared to 80% of the global average. 88% feel that social media has given them a voice (vs global 73%). Clearly, besides financial independence, the power of social media and technology has caused women in China to feel more empowered than ever before.  If financial independence is the key goal for women in China today, then technology and social media are the critical vehicles that will Chinese women get there. 

Do you get a sense that brands will be open to shifting how they portray or talk to women? 

It seems to me that overall, brands who are in categories already targeting women consumers are more receptive than the brands in sectors that traditionally have not spoken to women. However, there is still a reluctance to deviate from the aspirational image of the brand or portraying who these women are in the context of their role in society (i.e. moms, career women etc.). I have noticed that brands that are talking to younger women are more open to stepping out of the norm. Particularly brands that are talking to women born after 1995 or even after 2000.

You moved back to Asia three years ago. How has China changed (in your view) since the last time you lived here?

China is always changing. Even during the three years I’ve lived here, it has changed. I think young people today are presented with so many different value sets and ways of life that it becomes confusing to figure out which one fits them the most. 

For women, there is great tension in what society expects of them and what they really want for themselves. These expectations are amplified by factors such as rapid exposure to Western values, all of which have made the modern Chinese woman much more self-aware of her own needs and aspirations. I think it will be fascinating to see where it will go from here.


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