Females in China: Beyond the Headline Numbers

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Last Thursday, China’s State Council Information Office (SCIO) published a white paper: Equality, Development and Sharing: Progress of Women’s Cause in 70 Years Since New China’s Founding. “The founding of the PRC in 1949 ushered in a new era for women in China, changing their social status from an oppressed and enslaved group in the past thousands of years to masters of their own fate…” the paper began.

The report praised female workers’ participation in China. Its female labour force now numbers 340 million – twice as many as when China opened up in 1979, counting a much larger share working in the industry and service sectors. Participation in education was also celebrated, with females making up 52.5% of Chinese in higher education. Similarly, a women’s average life expectancy – standing at 79.4 years in 2015 – has grown 10.1 years since 1981 and a whopping 42.7 years since 1949.

Nevertheless, not everyone is applauding China’s progress for gender equality. A similar report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted China’s Global Gender Gap rank fell sharply from 63rd out of 115 countries in 2006, to 103rd out of 149 countries based on 2018 data. One of the contributors was China’s female-to-male ratio of 87:100 at birth, ranking China last out of 149 countries surveyed.

Contradictory to the SCIO’s study, the WEF noted female participation in the labour force had dropped from around 80% in the 1980s, to 68.6% last year. Although this was slightly higher than the US and similar to Japan, it was contrary to other major ‘developing’ countries such as Brazil and South Africa. 19% of China’s national civic service jobs posted in 2018 included requirements such as “men only,” “men preferred,” or “suitable for men.”

The income gap between urban male and female workers increased from 15% in 1990 to 25% in 2000. This disparity has persisted over the last two decades. A 2018 poll reported that Chinese women on average earn 22% less than their male co-workers, ranking China 74th globally in wage equality. Women account for just 17% of senior managers, officials, and legislators – although Japan is even worse at 13%.

The WEF report did highlight some areas that China deserves due praise. Much like the SCIO noted, since 2008, women have been more likely than men to continue onto higher education, ranking it number 1 in gender balance for tertiary education. Unfortunately the top universities are still skewed towards males. In 2018, the share of female students at top-ranking Tsinghua was 34% and third-ranked Zhejiang was 21%, with Fudan being the only university in the top-6 with more females (51:49).

Entrepreneurship stands as one area where Chinese women take a leading role. A 2017 WEF study found that women set up 55% of new internet companies in China, and women accounted for more than a quarter of all entrepreneurs overall. The 2018 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs also ranked China 29th out of more than 60 countries surveyed, just behind countries like Germany (23rd) and France (24th).

Whilst much the data isn’t great, beyond the reports, China’s educated, entrepreneurial and adventurous female consumers are very much a force to be reckoned with. In most cases, they are more open to international lifestyles and products than their male peers.

Females accounted for two-thirds of cross border commerce spending, and those who drink beer consume a proportionately higher amount of foreign brands than their male counterparts. Whereas men buy virtually all of the expensive sports cars in most markets, Chinese women purchase almost half of exotic luxury cars such as Maserati and Porsches. They account for the majority of Chinese athletes performing on a global level, even in traditionally-male sports such as football, rugby and the UFC. In 2018, 58% of females travelled independently – 16% more than their male counterparts. They also spent 14% more than males while travelling. Chinese female students are also more likely to study abroad than their male peers. In 2014, women accounted for 51% of Chinese students studying in the US and 63% of those in the UK.

In short, Chinese females are a very important customer for most foreign brands and worth understanding and connecting with. We noted last week about how well Nike connects with confident and assertive Chinese females. Another well-cited example is SK-II’s Leftover Women campaign which resonated with the valuable demographic, and had a halo effect with others too. We could go on… but the moral of the story is understanding Chinese females beyond the headline numbers of white papers is imperative to connecting with them and winning their favour. China Skinny can help you do just that.

China Skinny’s office will be closed next week for the Golden Week holiday, but we’ll be back in the second week of October. For our Shanghai-based readers in town after the holiday, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner is sharing insights about engaging consumers at the maXcomm Shanghai 2019 on Thursday 17 October, organised by the German Chamber – we hope to see you there. More info here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.

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