When tracking the evolution of developing countries, we see many of the trends in the West working at hyper-speed in Asia (e.g. growth of the middle class, adoption of branding and technology).
A couple of weeks ago our Asia team had a really interesting discussion about how a growing trend of women’s independence is manifesting in the region. Recent articles such as The Curse of the Mummyji in the Economist, and Brands look anew at single Asian women in WARC inspired a fascinating email discussion as our Hong Kong and Singapore team shared their personal experiences and thoughts on the topic.
Serena Jacob (Head of FACE Singapore) talked about the Indian mother-in-law / daughter-in-law relationship, Andrew Ho (Managing Director of FACE Asia) had thoughts on “carnivore women” and “herbivore men” in Japan, and I (Nicole Li) shared some thoughts on “victorious women” in China.
Our blog editors thought this was far too interesting not to share, and so we’ve written it up in this post. What are the gender trends we’re seeing develop, and why?
Understanding the wider Asian context
Before we look at individual markets, let’s consider some social and economic factors that sit across Asia. Firstly, the cost of living has been increasing rapidly in Asia, necessitating dual income households. When women need to work they also need to acquire skills and therefore need an education, which means that more and more Asian women have economic independence. Secondly, the exposure to alternate points of view and ways of being through a variety of media, including social media, is changing the mindset of Asian women. And last but not least, the Internet has raised public awareness towards crimes against women in Asian countries and helped moving women’s rights forward. For example, the gang rape cases in India have raised international attention.
All of the above factors have meant that more and more Asian women are now able to get an education, build careers, generate enough disposable income to indulge their own tastes, and have the confidence to make choices for themselves.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that women’s growing independence will take the same shape across Asia. Let’s look at how these have been manifesting in China, Japan and India, and how are brands adapting to these trends – or even leading the way.
China & Hong Kong – From “leftover ladies” to “flourishing females”
In China and Hong Kong, the term “leftover ladies” (剩女) have been a very popular topic in the past few years. The term is used to describe women who remain single into their 30s and beyond, and it implies that there is something wrong with them. However, people have recently started to push back on this by swapping the first word “sheng” for another word that is pronounced identically but is written differently in Chinese. This term has a more positive meaning – “shengnu” as in “flourishing women” (盛女) in Hong Kong and “victorious women” (勝女) in China.
How does this “flourishing women” trend play out?
- In Hong Kong, many women are re-examining their identities and exploring how they can live a “flourishing” single life. For instance, solo pre-wedding bridal shoots have been gaining popularity, as many women decide that they do not need to wait for “the One” to fulfill their desire to be photographed wearing nice dresses, to leave a good memory of their youth and beauty
- In China, women are becoming less afraid to display their success for fear that it may scare off men. More young female business executives are buying luxury cars and watches for themselves.
- Some brands have joined Chinese women to celebrate their “victorious life” – for instance, according to the Wall Street Journal, Maserati has been hosting private cocktail parties together with Giorgio Armani and La Perla for successful young female business executive in China. According to the car company, women account for 40% of Quattroporte orders in China, compared to less than 5% in Europe and USA.
Japan – Enjoying the “single lifestyle”
Those who have watched Japanese drama will be familiar with the following scene – a Japanese housewife standing at the doorstep greeting her husband when he comes back from work. In the traditional role, Japanese women are expected to stay at home and take care of the family while their husbands deal with the outside world.
But this is changing – as illustrated by a few expressions that seek to capture change in women’s role in the Japanese society:
- Carnivore Women vs. Herbivore Men – the rise of ambitious, career driven women in response to the increasing population of “vegetarian” men who (metaphorically speaking) do not aggressively hunt for dates or career advancement, but instead prefer to “eat grass” side by side with women
- sekkusu shinai shokogun, or ‘Celibacy Syndrome’ – Japanese survey data is suggesting that many young women are avoiding engaging in relationships. A 2011 survey from Japan’s National Insitute of Population and Social Security Research reported that 49% of unmarried women under 35 (and 61% of men) were not in any kind of romantic relationship, and 90% (!) of young women believed that staying single was “preferable to what they imagine marriage would be like”. Instead, young women are preferring to build a carefree and comfortable single lifestyle
- Products tailored for singles are not new news in Japan: for instance a real estate company called Tokyo’s Girl Fudosan designs “kawaii”/ cute feminine style condos offering communal living solutions markets itself towards female residents.
India – Women gaining independence
Traditionally, the role of Indian women is strongly defined and confined by the family. Indian women marry relatively young and once married, they are expected to be completely submissive to the family they have married into, particularly their ‘mummyji’ (mother-in-law).
This situation has been changing, however – the increasing cost of living and high real-estate costs mean apartments in large metros are small and can only accommodate “nuclear” families. This means that there are more households where the young housewife makes the brand decisions, and she will potentially adopt new categories and brands that her mother-in-law might not have allowed.
As a result of their growing independence and increasing personal disposable income, Indian women are spending more and experimenting with more product categories. For example, there is a growing acceptance of women consuming alcohol - “We girls normally hang out once a week at some joint or the other. For us, it’s a stress-buster,” says one 29-year-old advertising executive. And brands have recognized this change: e.g. the French alcohol brand Remy Cointreau has held parties and promotional events targeted at female drinkers, with discounts offered proportionate to the height of the heels they are wearing!
Women’s growing independence is a strong trend in Asia, and in even less developed countries than those we’ve mentioned, we reckon it will become mainstream faster than many companies expect. While some brands have already adapted to this, most are yet to recognize this with brand communications that still harp back to traditional gender roles. We hope that a deeper understanding of their cultural differences and societal development would inspire more interesting and culturally sensitive communications for Asian women.
Please stay tuned for an extension of this article, as we will be tracking how the trends manifest in different countries in Asia.