Women's Day Special: Diversity in the workforce and leadership helps understand the consumer better

Women make up around 30 per cent of the entry-level workforce in the media and advertising world, but this number steadily drops to 3 per cent at the top leadership level.

e4m by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Updated: Mar 8, 2018 8:58 AM

The conversation about women's rights has grown louder over the past year with themes of inequality and injustice towards women taking centre stage. It is therefore imperative to take stock of the state of women in the media and advertising industries this Women's Day.

There is no denying that being a woman, a married woman at that and a married woman with a child puts women at a disadvantage in any working environment. Sadly, the seemingly liberal media industry does not insulate women from this universal truth. Women make up around 30 per cent of the entry-level workforce in the media and advertising world, but this number steadily drops to 3 per cent at the top leadership level. 

The fundamental problem is that "women are expected to choose between career progression and family," identified Sonia Huria, Head- Communications & CSR, Viacom18. "While for women this choice is only too real a conundrum, the impression that women may choose one over the other leads to gender-based career definition quite early on. So, what we need are policies and practices at the workplace to ensure that women don't have to make a choice," she said.

The drop in the percentage of women at the leadership level is surely not a reflection of ambition, said Gayatri Yadav, President Consumer Strategy & Innovation, Star India. "Work is a reflection of the same society we live in, replete with conditioning and unconscious bias. This is as much a challenge for both men and women. It’s interesting to reflect on the role bias may play in both society limiting women and women limiting themselves. Asymmetrical parenting load and expectations of a career being more important for a man vs a woman contribute to the issue," she noted. 

There is a problem

Peggy Olson might be pleasantly surprised to see how far the world has come since her days at Mad Men on Madison Avenue. That alone is no reason for cheer. Women in the ad world may not have to go to the lengths that Joan Holloway (Mad Men) had to become a partner at the firm, but they suffer the same misogyny. Carter Murray, Worldwide CEO, FCB, recognised the latent misogyny in the industry when he aptly said, "words matter" adding that, "The Harvey Weinstein case is an extreme case, It is the day-to-day occurrences of which we have to be careful about." He was speaking on the need for diversity in leadership at the exchange4media Conclave 2017. 

Noting that advertising is all about understanding the consumer, Murray said that diversity in the workforce and leadership helps understand the consumer better because brands sell not just to men but women too. Maya Hari, Vice President, Asia Pacific at Twitter, noted that a diverse team also makes sense in terms of profitability. "Study after study has shown that more diverse teams are more creative and innovative. Companies with diverse leadership are more profitable. To actually achieve diverse perspectives, we need to make sure that every voice is heard," she said. 

Men and women in the industry tend to agree that there is a problem but find it hard to say that out loud. Murray noted that men and women together need to create an environment where women can have their voices heard. "Let's get everyone to admit there is a problem. And then we can have a conversation on how to fix it," he further added. Rubeena Singh, CEO iProspect, said that while latent misogyny is a social issue, the work environment at agencies is friendlier to women now on account of the progress in the gender diversity agenda and the shift in social attitudes towards what is acceptable and what is not. "Is the issue resolved completely? Maybe not. But we have definitely improved on that front," she observed. 

Pay parity is as much an issue in the ad word as it is elsewhere. Women leaders agree that the numbers speak for themselves and there is no shying away from this even if the Human Resource department would want us believing otherwise. It has been ingrained in our subconscious that "the 'man' is the breadwinner," said Huria. "There is a principal need for that to change and it needs to start at the grass-roots level. Media & Entertainment as an industry has the power to change mindsets and our cohesive efforts to reinforce gender parity is needed to resolve this global issue," she said.

Mentorship Matters
In a recent panel discussion on women leaders, panellists noted that women are shy to ask for a raise and a good chunk of them also believe that they may not ever make it to the top leadership. Recognising this lack of confidence in women, Yadav noted that if women leaders could mentor young and upcoming women, they could turn the tide. 

"I think both men and women leaders have the responsibility to mentor and shape the next generation...both boys and girls alike. This is paying it forward; I always believe that in doing so you get more than you give," said Yadav. "The confidence of young women can be bolstered when they have role models who can inspire them," suggested Apurva Purohit, President, Jagran Prakashan Group.

While the numbers do seem bleak, some women in the industry have had extremely positive experiences. "Ours is a field where the work speaks for itself. That itself makes it difficult to discriminate. A client who has put his trust and money in an agency will always ask for the best team in the agency. No client till date has called and said I want a man to lead my business," said Zenobia Pithawalla, Senior Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy and Mather. 

What can be done?

There is no doubt that agencies have taken cognisance of the gender disparity and are working towards reducing the gap. From flexi-timings, options to work from home or hiring women who may have been on a break post-pregnancy, agencies have women-friendly policies in place. What is possibly missing is a change in the attitude towards women. "I think resources need to be allocated to training to sensitize the larger employee base on the importance of gender diversity to the organisation. The culture of the organization is set at the top, by the CXO suite. They need to walk the talk, be fair and not tolerate misadventures in matters related to sexual harassment, irrespective of gender," said Singh.

Singh advised women to start asking more questions with respect to their rights and freely start availing any facilities provided to them, especially at times like maternity without any sense of compromise, hesitation or guilt.

Echoing Singh's words, Huria said, "For young women who are entering the workforce, my single and the most important tip is to be confident and keep a no-give-up attitude. As one progresses in a professional career, we face situations that need a winning attitude."

"To fellow leaders (irrespective of gender) I would like to say that let's keep the workplace gender neutral and nurture all young leaders as professionals," Huria further added.

Summing up the diversity at the workplace issue as a reflection of what happens back home, Pooja Jauhari, CEO, The Glitch, said, "If only women have to take time off for home-related chores or child and home care, men will obviously have the edge because they can put in the time at work hence get the promotions and move up the ladder faster."

"So in a nutshell, it will stop being a boys club at work when it stops being a girls club at home. Equal responsibilities at home mean equal opportunities at work," she added.

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