Asian economies are still growing – and as they expand, they’re opening up better education and career opportunities for many. But cultural definitions of successful, and often single, career women in Asian society still appear misguided.
How are labels being used to categorise professional Asian women, and what is the scope for brands to communicate with this powerful consumer demographic in a meaningful and relevant way?
Negative labels on positive women
Many Chinese women in their 30s are remaining single because the pool of available men doesn’t meet their expectations. China’s big gender divide – reportedly the largest in the world – means that men vastly outnumber women; 120 boys are born for every 100 girls, according to a study by Nomura Global.  But with so many men to choose from, are successful heterosexual women too fussy? Are they too old to find love? Chinese society thinks so; single females over 27 are referred to as sheng nu, or ‘leftover women’. Many see them as a social burden, even though an increasing number are opting to stay single by choice. 
Another term, nu quiang ren, translates as ‘strong woman’ – but it’s not a compliment. For some, being labelled a ‘superwoman’ implies that they’re ‘too strong’ – and this can be perceived as a barrier to finding a partner. “Nu quiang ren is a derogatory term,” explains Dana Ter, a writer for Policy Mic. “In Hong Kong and China, it refers to women who are so absorbed in their careers that no one wants to date them.” 
Career women in Taiwan are pressured to act cute and girly, and speak in high pitched voices because it’s part of a larger cultureDana Ter, Policy Mic writer (2014)
Not all women feel uncomfortable with a single life – some assert their choice as being entirely driven by personal free will. However, social disdain prevails, and the choice is often made at the cost of ‘family honour’.  “While there’s more acceptance of women doing well in the workplace,” says Ter, “there’s also a social stigma towards being ‘too strong’.” 
In 2010, 58% of Taiwanese women in the 30-39 age group were reported as single, compared with only 13-15% of British and American women in their 30s. Yet feminist ideals are not readily embraced in Taiwan.  Some believe the influence of kawaii culture – the Japanese derived ‘culture of cute’ – hinders women from fully exploring adulthood, as they’re expected to maintain an unnatural sense of childlike innocence.  “Career women in Taiwan are pressured to act cute and girly, and speak in high pitched voices because it’s part of a larger culture,” says Ter. “This may seem weird in western culture, but it's prevalent in Taiwan – acting like 5-year-old kids makes [women] seem less threatening.” 
A more ‘positively’ regarded label in Asia is that of the ‘Gold Miss’, referring to an uber-exclusive group of single, 30+ women of extreme beauty, wealth and intellect. For many, they are an emblem of glitzy Gangnam culture associated with neighbouring South Korea.  The Gold Miss label has gained aspirational status across the region, but the ‘limited entry’ ruling drives a perilous craving to be part of a club – which, in many ways, serves to induce conflict rather than camaraderie amongst women. The main rival group to Gold Misses are the Doenjang Girls.  This derogatory term refers to doenjang, a cheap Korean ‘bean paste’. These women are branded copycats who eat cheap food in order to afford expensive brands and mimic the lives of their exclusive idols.
In Taiwan, being a single woman over 30 often carries a stigma
masa_0202, Creative Commons (2012) ©
Beyond superficial stereotypes
Many of these categorisations carry shallow and crass inferences. They’re limiting to women, and potentially harmful for brands seen to endorse them. When a fad is no longer fashionable, or a particular demographic moves on, labels can appear vacant.
Asian societies have long bought into the ‘fair is beautiful’ concept, but the notion has also come under harsh criticism, along with products associated with it – like India’s leading skin-lightening brand Fair and Lovely. “There was always a message in the advertising that somehow you deserved more from life if you were fair skinned than if you were dark skinned,” says Bollywood feature writer Samreen Tungekar. “It encouraged women to be ‘a few shades lighter’.”  In more recent times, the brand has attempted to reposition for a broader skin care offering, but shaking past associations is a tough task – particularly when the brand’s name is still ‘Fair and Lovely’.
At a time when professional women in Asia are largely overlooked and underserved, it’s important for brands to look beyond social stereotypes. Gaining a thorough understanding of different demographics and cultural frameworks, whilst adapting to shifts in behaviour, is critical to effective communication in this diverse market.
Duncan Dodds, Asia expert and CEO of UK strategic consultancy Heart and Head, warns of the importance of tapping into cultural nuances. “Asia encompasses a myriad of cultural differences and attitudes both between and within countries,” he explains. “If you speak to a group of Hong Kong consumers, there’s every chance they’ll be forthright about how different their taste is from Mainlanders.” In China alone there are cultural differences which ought to be considered, adds Dodds. For example, ma da sao refers to the Shanghai concept of ‘shop, wash, cook’. “It’s not uncommon for men to take on this mantle as part of an overall responsibility to look after the family”, he states, indicating the worth of observing gender shifts in Asian markets. 
Why are men and women with the same job treated differently?
Pantene Philippines ©
Challenging perceptions of ‘normal’
Pantene Philippines’ ‘Labels Against Women’ campaign takes a very direct approach to cultural tags, highlighting the gender dichotomy in the corporate world. In the advert, a dominant man is called ‘boss’ – but a woman in exactly the same leadership position is labelled ‘bossy’. 
But whilst this is telling of the inequality experienced by many professional women in Asia, for brands to truly engage with this demographic, they need to go a step beyond the ‘rallying cry’ and begin to portray women in roles which were traditionally reserved for men, insists Dodds. “Behavioural change can come from repeatedly challenging perceptions of ‘norms’,” he explains. “Telling stories around ‘real’ women in roles perceived to be ‘for men’ is a step in the right direction.” 
Louis Vuitton’s 2012 ‘When Hong Kong Is a Woman’ campaign uses the gender lens to explore the narrative of Hong Kong as a woman.  Film is a genre commonly used in luxury storytelling, and this piece focuses on the themes of cultural identity and gender, denoting that the city resembles the different qualities of women. There are no overt references to strength or power in the advert, but the two minute film does cast a series of successful ‘real’ Asian women (including model Cara G, actress Grace Huan, journalist Janice Wong, composer Rosy Chan and architect Marisa Yiu) to tell the cityscape story.
Behavioural change can come from repeatedly challenging perceptions of ‘norms’Duncan Dodds, Heart and Head CEO (2014)
Taking it one step further, the Vodafone Foundation demonstrates that brands can go beyond advertising and simple lip service, creating real-life female equality.  Vodafone has set up 16 ‘Angel’ women-only stores in India, designed to offer women opportunities in retail management, and encourage female consumers to engage with mobile technology. Another venture with the Malala Fund Partnership – the charity set up by Pakistani female ambassador and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai – has seen Vodafone address female illiteracy and access to education.
But whilst global brands prove influential in terms of conveying an aspirational lifestyle, local brands have a special insight into cultural codes and taboos. This opens up a big opportunity to influence and shape change in a way that suits particular audiences. The narrative of the ‘Remarriage’ advert from jewellery brand Tanishq, a division of India’s Tata group, challenges cultural ‘norms’ in Indian society. The scene shows a darker skinned bride in her 30’s, and suggests that the bride is a single mother at the time of remarrying – a scenario some may argue is still considered atypical in India. 
“Tanishq challenges social taboos in a way that is still uncommon in India, and they made an unusual scenario acceptable,” says Aasheiaana Zuzarte, a ‘liberal minded’ make-up artist from Mumbai. “It’s a very positive message to women, and to society.”  But being considered ‘too modern’ has its own tension in India, Zuzarte explains – it’s a term generally associated with higher social classes. Women lower down the social rung feel less compelled to sway from norms or appear ‘too’ liberated, as this contains a wider inference of loose morals, and there is fear of social reproach.
The ‘Remarriage’ advert sends a powerful message to Indian women
‘Leaning In’ to the thinking woman’s heart and mind
In the aftermath of the gang rape of young Delhi student Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, India’s feminist sentiment is growing. An ‘anti-glamour’ movement has emerged, with home-grown brands like Bhane and Raw Mango surfacing as options for the ‘thinking’ Indian woman.  They promote natural fabrics, and embrace the notion of authenticity – hence the use of models that look true to life, rather than overly glamorous women more commonly associated with Bollywood.
Lifestyle brands like Soma and Anokhi, which modernise the tradition of Jaipur block printing onto textile, have also been gaining traction amongst educated Indian women for several years. These brands operate on a fair trade system, providing work, and nurturing communities of female craftswomen in Northern India.
Meanwhile, in China, Lean In Beijing is an organisation inspired by Lean in: Women, Work and Will To Lead – a book by Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg.  It’s based on the notion of female circles built to support and empower women. And it’s proved powerful, as demonstrated by its partnership with stock image provider Getty Images, which challenges stereotypes in stock photography. The plethora of images showing confused or sexualised businesswomen is being replaced by competent, powerful, real female leaders.
And this portrayal of women as active and strong is upheld by Taiwanese bicycle brand Giant, which created the world’s first female-only bike store in 2008.  With a variety of high-end cycling products aimed at women, the brand has grown both locally and globally. Giant won the 2013 Taiwan Excellence Award for its contribution to female cycling, producing a gentle but powerful advert that avoids any glaring gender references. Instead, it inspires a ‘dare to dream’ message, ending with the line “for someone like you, adventurous and up for challenge.” 
Chinese women support each other in the struggle for empowerment
Lean In Beijing (2014) ©
Insights and opportunities
Tapping into a progressive ‘feminist’ disposition, or indeed any movement connected with female equality and independence, requires a deconstruction of what such values mean to different cultures. A sense of unity and sisterhood may be at the heart of the ethos driving female empowerment, but brands need to uncover the best expression of this sentiment if they are to differentiate their message and resonate with audiences more meaningfully.
For brands hoping to send a message, understanding the cultural frameworks and existing ‘labels’ is important – but it’s equally important not to be led by them. Instead, the smartest brands are looking out for emerging demographics and studying their needs carefully in order to identify underserved consumers.
Seeing empowered women in brand advertising should be the norm
Female power can be positioned as the ‘new normal’. Whilst adverts like Pantene’s ‘Labels Against Women’ make important observations, and stimulate debate, depicting women in unconventional roles and settings is an important next step. This doesn’t have to stop at the boardroom. It can extend to challenging professions in science and the arts too. Seeing empowered women in brand advertising should be the norm, whilst using an appropriate tone of voice ensures that the communication is tailored for each audience.
The power of ‘local’ should not be underestimated, either. Local brands have an intimate knowledge of the cultural dialogue, which can provide a powerful window into the minds of consumers. Partnerships between western and Asian organisations can be effective in cracking the culture code and reaching wider audiences.
Trade models that genuinely care about women are being adopted both globally and locally. The Vodafone Foundation supports women in developing economies to access skills, jobs and education, whilst home brands like Anokhi have been empowering local women for decades through community trade. True change occurs when businesses adopt positive models of trade that are inclusive to women, and empower female communities to live rewarding lives.
Shabana Ebrahem is a UK-based researcher and trends writer with a special interest in consumer culture.
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1. ‘China and the worst-ever, man-made gender gap’, Global Post (January 2013)
2. ‘Here’s the China Demographics Chart That Actually Scares Us’, Business Insider (November 2013)
3. ‘Sheng Nu - Leftover Women - The Thin Line Between Women Independence and Social Disgrace’, Thinking Chinese (2013)
4. Interview with Dana Ter conducted by author
5. ‘China’s Leftover Women, Unmarried at 27’, BBC News Magazine (2013)
6. ‘The Flight from Marriage’, The Economist (August 2011)
7. ‘East Asia Kawaii Culture is Insidiously Anti-Woman’, Neon Tommy (October 2013)
8. ‘The Gold Misses in South Korea: Icons in Marketing to Gangnam’, Institutional Knowledge at Singapore Management University (2013)
9. Interview with Samreen Tungekar conducted by author
10. Interview with Duncan Dodds conducted by author
11. ‘Pantene Philippines, Labels Against Women’, YouTube (November 2013)
12. ‘Louis Vuitton Presents ‘When Hong Kong is a Woman’, Vimeo (2013)
13. ‘Vodafone Foundation and Malala Fund Partnership to Tackle Female Illiteracy and Expand Girls’ Access to Education’, Vodafone News Release (March 2014)
14. ‘Tanishq, Remarriage’, YouTube (October 2013)
15. Interview with Aasheiaana Zuzarte conducted by author
16. ‘The Anti-Glamour Movement’, So Then India (2014)
17. ‘Taking Inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg, Beijing start to Lean In’, Businessweek (September 2013)
18. ‘Giant more than a bicycle brand’, Taiwan Today (2010)
19. ‘Tailored for Women: Giant On Road Performance Aero Race Bike’, YouTube (December 2013)