Grappling with Values: Gender Perspectives on Young Social Innovator’s Meaning of Work in China

The search for values and meanings alignment in work and life has been an important characteristic of the current younger generation. Today, many youths will not compromise their citizen subjectivity, personal values, and meanings of work. Studies have pointed out that the expansion of neoliberal management has valorised individuals and organisations as purposive actors empowered by their own vision, innovation, and entrepreneurship. In China, with the call for mass entrepreneurship and innovation to encourage more young people to engage in innovative endeavours to boost national development, there emerged a social innovation sector, a sub-sector at the intersection of nonprofits and businesses, where many young people today engage in social impact work to advance their social visions.

Through thirty semi-structured interviews with young social innovators and social entrepreneurs in China and a year-long participant observations in over fifty social innovation-related events, I show how this field is gender-ambivalent, a field with a mixture of simultaneously contradictory gender ideas and attitudes. To navigate such paradox and tension to sustain their meanings of work in this field, young women and men align different meanings and demonstrate different attitudes to sustain and make sense of their work. Women often speak about the purpose of life and building relationships. Men often talk about bringing social change, while commenting about enjoying autonomy in this field more than in other sectors. This study further highlights how structural and socio-cultural factors may facilitate different constructions of meaningful work in young people’s entrepreneurial pursuit of social causes.

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