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Women hold up half the sky: how China is building a gender equal ad industry


By Danielle Long, Acting APAC Editor

January 23, 2018 | 14 min read

A quick glance at the leadership teams of advertising and media agencies in China reveals a gender balance unmatched in other markets, with women holding the top jobs at no less than 20 leading agencies across Greater China.

Agencies such as BBDO, BBH, Carat, Cheil, Dentsu Aegis Network, Leo Burnett, Mindshare, OMD, PHD and Publicis Media, are just some of the industry giants helmed by women. The trend is significant, especially when compared to other markets. However, to the women The Drum spoke to, it’s no big deal.

China is no stranger to women in powerful positions with large numbers of women occupying the top jobs – particularly CMO roles - in major companies and that’s not to mention the 49 Chinese women who run companies and rank among a list of the world’s self-made billionaires.

Ever since the cultural revolution in 1949 the ideas of gender equality have been widespread in China, led by Mao Zedong’s famous statements about the role of women.

“Women Hold Up Half The Sky,” is a proclamation made by Mao Zedong, mainly to prove that women are a resource that ought to be deployed outside of the homes into the professional fields. It is such a powerful statement that affirms that women can do just as much as men can,” says Tan Tze Kiat, chief executive officer of BBDO China.

“China has explicitly upheld the notion of gender equality in daily life and tasks,” agrees PHD China CEO Anna Chitty. “That’s not to say pressures are equal across genders, as there are expectations that are different for males and females that are deeply rooted in Chinese culture. However, at the heart of it all is a real doctrine of equality.”

Generations of Chinese women and men have grown up with these ideas of gender balance, which has contributed to China’s strong female workforce - 64% of women in China work compared with 54% of women in the UK and US.

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Chinese women are also excelling in their work, with 33% of married women aged under 40 years earning more than their husbands, while a further 19% of single women earn more than their male counterparts, according to findings in the BBDO Voices report.

It’s clear that China is doing something right when it comes to gender equality and creating an even playing field for women in the workforce.

“We are all so lucky that we take it for granted that we have a higher number of women in senior roles in this part of the world,” admits Carol Lam, chief creative officer and president of Leo Burnett Greater China.

“I remember, when I was starting out, there were a lot of outstanding women role models and as a young woman, seeing is believing. We were lucky to have a handful of extraordinary women in our industry in the beginning. We grew up seeing so many women in leadership roles and they were clever, powerful and glamourous and so inspirational. The idea of inequality never crossed my mind,” says Lam.

However, this equality was not built on attitude alone. A number of factors have played significant roles in helping women to snare the top jobs in agencies – most notably the late arrival of the advertising industry in China.

A young industry

It was the mid-to-late 80s when advertising took off in China, which meant the market skipped the Mad Men-era of entrenched sexism and jumped straight into a time when women were wearing power suits and holding executive positions. Locally, however, China was simply focused on staffing up, an issue that holds strong in the industry today.

“We are on a high-speed train and everybody is so hungry for talent that sexual discrimination is a luxury that we cannot afford,” says Lam. “As long as people are capable of doing the work, the ideas of gender do not even come to our mind.”

Christine Ng, CEO of BBH China, agrees, “As the industry took off with the increase in domestic consumerism and influx of more international agencies, the demand for trained talent was far greater than the supply. The focus of any agency management in China would be on skill and experience regardless of gender.”

The keys skills and strengths that roles in advertising required helped attract more women to the industry, says Ng.

“When the economy opened up, against the traditional mainstream industries like manufacturing, engineering etc, advertising and marketing were perceived as a ‘softer skill’ career choice.

“Another common contribution source to the funnel was graduates of International language, which is female skewed. Over the years, this has generated a healthy pool of trained female talent,” says Ng.

Lam agrees, “Advertising and communications as a business, does not have any assets. The only assets are our people and the nature of advertising business suits the qualities of women, to be agile, considerate, collaborative and to motivate people to get the best out of them.”

With so many women working in the advertising industry in China, it makes sense that a large number would rise to the top job, according to Carat China CEO Ellen Hou.

“The ratio of female workers in the industry is very large so it’s pretty natural that women have got more opportunity to climb up to the top,” says Hou.

“Advertising is more like the service industry so it needs strengths in collaboration and I believe women are born with that talent. They are better than men at connecting and collaborating. Men are more like fighters, they are territorial animals who want to claim ‘I am the king and this is my territory’. They feel in order for them to win, others need to fail. Whereas women have a more collaborative mindset, their attitude is more ‘let’s do this together’, they want to hold their team together and to work as a team to help each other.”

“If you look at where the industry is currently, the most important value is to be collaborative. So, in this era, women’s strengths in collaboration is allowing them to excel.”

Hou continues, “Also, they are more persistent. Many guys might move out of the industry and change careers, whereas women are more persistent and stick to what they want.”

The movement of men in the advertising industry – and out of it - has also been a contributing factor.

BBH’s Ng says, “Culturally, there is strong notion that it’s more important for men to venture out to build their own business and empire. There were evidently more admen who have opened up their own agency business or other businesses than adwomen over the last decade.”

The role of men and the family

China’s cultural and family structures, which see grandparents living with their children and helping to raise their grandchildren, is another key factor that has propelled Chinese women to the upper echelons of businesses and corporations.

Bertilla Teo, CEO of Publicis Media Greater China, says the trend is not unique to China but is also prevalent across the region.

“Our Greater China leadership line-up is reflective of Asia. Asian women generally have good family support networks or ready access to full-time day-care services for children. Traditional family structures, in this case, can prove to support and enable progression,” says Teo.

“Chinese women have a lot of help,” says Kiat. “They have the luxury of help from an Ayi [a paid live-in helper who cooks, cleans, and looks after children] as well as not one but two pairs of parents that are helping out with the household and the children.”

BBH’s Ng agrees, “There are relatively fewer ‘obstacles’ in the career path of adwomen in China than in markets like the US or Europe. Domestic and childcare support from willing grandparents (two sets of grandparents to one child) means that women have the choice of not putting their career on pause as she starts her family. Her counterpart in the other markets could be faced with putting a hold on their career development more than once.”

It’s not just the parents that are helping out, it’s also the husbands, says Pully Chau, CEO of Cheil Greater China.

“In Shanghai in a lot of families, it’s the men who cook and the men who go to the markets so whether it is a husband or a father this is the culture,” says Chau.

“While the rest of China makes jokes about it, Shanghai is an interesting sub-culture and it wields a lot of influence. There are more men that are comfortable taking a back seat and willing to stay home and take care of the young babies and cook, which means it is socially acceptable for women to take a front seat with career. We don’t do a lot of propaganda about it but it is an exceptional social phenomenon.”

The legacy of China’s one-child policy has also played a significant role in helping women to be more ambitious and work their way up the ladder. The one-child policy has meant that parents are heavily invested in their child’s education, encouraging them to work hard to be successful regardless of whether they are a boy or a girl.

Carat’s Hou says, “Chinese women know they need to earn money and they need to have aspirations. That gives women lots of confidence to have aspirations and to gain experience, to work hard and when they face difficulties they know to keep going.”

These aspirations, along with the need to provide for her family also help to spur women upwards as they seek the better pay and work conditions that come with senior roles.

Chau says, “Aside from the practical challenges, career women, regardless of culture, have to manage the guilt of not being the core caretaker of her children. Given the pragmatism of this society, many Chinese career women manage that guilt by focusing on how their financial success could be of value to their child’s future.

“In China’s competitive society, securing the finances to provide the best resources and enhancement for the child’s development is as much a responsible thing to do as it is to be the primary caretaker. The freedom from any social judgement in China on the role she chooses to play certainly facilitates the path to top jobs.”

More work to be done

All of the women The Drum spoke to for this article were keen to point out that women’s progression to the top roles in advertising is a result of skills and expertise and is not about quotas or equal opportunity targets.

BBDO’s Kiat says, “In Chinese we say ‘有能者居之-能者多劳,能者为师’, Seats are always reserved for the capable - let those who can serve as teacher, let those who can lead to do better work.

“If a woman was asked to join the senior ranks of an agency just so a network can meet its quota, then that is not gender equality. If people talk about the issue of gender equality, that too is not gender equality. Yet, I’m speaking from the unique context of China where this is less of an issue than it is in the west,” says Kiat.

Publicis Media Greater China recently restructured its leadership team promoting four women to top roles, including Publicis Media chief intelligence officer Sapna Nemani, Starcom & Spark Foundry CEO Wee Ching Ian, Zenith China CEO Ellen To and Blue 449 CEO Vivian Zhu.

Teo says the promotions are in line with the company’s gender-neutral attitudes. “Market competitiveness, especially in fast-growing Asian markets like China, encourages gender-neutral hiring policies. When I look at the business and company, I look at building a team based on merit. I am gender agnostic.

“In Publicis Media Greater China, there is also a high female representation from mid to senior levels. Women broadly make up 74% of the company, with 69% representing mid to senior ranks. As we are built to promote from within, we look for the strongest candidates possible – and currently, they are women in our Greater China offices.”

Lam agrees, “Gender is never the point. It never crosses my mind. It’s about talent and work ethic and experience, it’s just never about gender.”

However, everyone believes there is still a lot of work to be done. While the advertising industry is rife with women, the same cannot be said for other industries in China.

“I know a lot of Chinese female CEOs,” says Kiat. “But I do admit there are differences between different fields and industries, such as engineering, technology, and manufacturing. The public sector in China is still very much led by men.”

Carat’s Ellen Hou agrees. “When you look at CEO and top management level across China, women are still the minority. Maybe compared to other countries, we are better but still not to a very ideal ratio.”

“If you look at state-owned companies, or banking or automotive, it is a male-dominated environment. The more traditional the industry is, or the more hierarchal it is, the more male the leadership is and the more difficulties women will have rising up,” says Hou.

Omnicom Media Group Taiwan CEO Kelly Huang agrees that female representation in leadership across the region is hugely dictated by the industry.

“It really depends on the industry. Across traditional industries, men continue to dominate senior management roles here. However, in marketing and advertising, there are a lot more opportunities for women in leadership positions. Though many of the country heads or top leadership positions are still held by men, I think women leaders have a lot more visibility now.

“There are still challenges for women in leadership roles, particularly when it comes to marriage and motherhood. Even though we have strong policies in place for maternity leave, many women feel that choosing to have a family will impact their career opportunities.

“One of the biggest challenges women face while rising the corporate ladder is the topic of equal compensation. Some women still lack the confidence to ask for the compensation they deserve,” says Huang.

Despite the many challenges women still face, Chiel’s Chau believes time will be a huge boost to gender equality in China as the younger generations grow up in increasingly more balanced societies.

“I think there is always room for improvement but it’s becoming more and more equal. Frankly, I believe the future generation, those born post-90s and after 2000, will probably have even more equality because of the education they get at school and the messages they see in the programming and content they watch. I think the next generation will be very respectful of each other and more equal.”

Huang agrees, “It’s about believing in a future where there are no female or male leaders – there are just leaders.”

Advertising Agency Publicis Groupe Advertising

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