Nicole Briones
Aug 9, 2023

Dear comms industry, the glass ceiling is showing—and it's time to crack it

Rife with female footprints but built on the illusion of female dominance? About time the industry talks about gender equality and not just PR, says Vero Philippines' operations director.

Dear comms industry, the glass ceiling is showing—and it's time to crack it

We constantly come across moments that remind us of the profound impact women have in the business world as they pioneer innovation and spearhead transformative change. While uncommon, there are industries where women proudly take the lead as a driving force, fearlessly defying stereotypes and forging new paths. The communications industry, for one, is where women reign supreme. Or so we thought.

A month ago, I had the privilege of speaking about the leadership at a corporate event organised by one of the largest banks in the Philippines. At 32 years old with credible experience, I knew I had valuable insights to share, and I was eager to hear my voice. But I could not shrug off the anxiety and the overwhelming pressure to do an excellent job.

I spent weeks extensively researching and practicing; there was no room for even the slightest stutter. Getting invited by a company from a traditionally male-dominated industry was a rare opportunity. Still, it also implicitly challenged me to prove myself and the gender I represent.
Do my male counterparts feel the same pressure to be seen, heard, and considered good?
Just months prior, I attended a business event where a foreigner unabashedly asked if I knew how to cook. “I don’t,” I answered politely but obviously puzzled by the question’s relevance. He said his Filipino wife was a good cook and hinted that if I wanted to be a great spouse, I should consider picking up some culinary skills.

Thankfully, the event at the bank went well. The audience showed genuine interest in my presentation and did not ask what dishes I could whip up in the kitchen. I thought it was a happy ending to weeks of anxiety. But it still bothered me why, along with my extensive preparation, I had to pray that the audience would focus on my presentation rather than judge me based on my looks. Why did I still need to pray for something as basic as respect?

Whether that was due to impostor syndrome or introversion, the truth is that there was,  and is, a need for women to pray not to have their intentions, capabilities, and intelligence unfairly scrutinised because of their gender.

Perception shapers fumble the gender equality narrative

The communications industry wields significant power in shaping societal perceptions. From the way Filipinos have come to associate Jollibee with familial love to how the humorous absurdity of the 'Basta RC Cola' advertisement resulted in a sudden 67% surge in sales for a long-overlooked beverage, there is plenty of compelling evidence of the industry’s ability to influence emotions and opinions.

But despite our reputation as perception shapers, the industry seems to have fallen short in amplifying gender equality narratives within its realm.

Interestingly, the PR and comms industry is one of the very few that employs more women than men. Independent marketing consultancy R3 has reported that female labour participation in the Southeast Asian PR landscape is 60%, compared to 49% globally. However, 40% of the agencies in the region still need formal initiatives to address diversity, equity, and inclusion. Numerous additional studies confirm that, despite their prominence, women frequently encounter sidelining in the process of selecting leaders, leading to a disproportionate number of men occupying top positions. 

In the Philippines, where I’m trying to make an impact as Vero’s operations director, I constantly have to defy preconceived notions of gender roles in an industry that’s proudly female-dominated. I have lost count of the number of times I have received skeptical looks when introducing myself and what I do.

A paper on Gender Representation in Philippine Advertising by Investing in Women echoes my concerns about gender biases. The researchers documented the portrayals of all genders in Philippine advertisements across TV, print, and radio and provided a qualitative look into the online advertising landscape and the blatant imbalance. Here’s some of what they found:

  • Women were more likely than men to be portrayed as typical users/consumers (65% vs 56%), while men were more likely than women to be experts (13% vs 6%).
  • Among the 1,329 roles assumed by the characters, familial (41%) was the biggest category, with more women (43%) than men (39%) being depicted in this role.
  • Women were overwhelmingly shown as homemakers compared to men (11% vs. 1%), while characters portrayed as skilled laborers are more likely to be men than women (5% vs. 1%).
Gender representation in Philippine advertising. Source: Gender in Ads report

“Women are overwhelmingly shown as homemakers.”  Perception shapers created this unfair narrative that has been continuously reiterated to this day. I should have taken the hint.

The cracks in the glass ceiling are not enough

This is not to disregard the progress made in achieving gender equality and representation over the years. Seeing women excelling in the communications industry is a testament to the efforts invested to break barriers and challenge norms.

The cracks we’ve made in the glass ceiling are significant, but we can do more to finally shatter it for good.

  • Women can and should run the world, too
  • Having more women in influential roles not only fosters gender diversity but also paves the way for the increased presence of women mentors. It is high time we recognize women can bring forth a wave of innovation, collaboration, and transformation. Equal representation for women should not just be a dream, but a normal reality.
  • Stories about women, as told by women
  • By highlighting various women in distinct roles and backgrounds, advertisements can inspire and empower while breaking down outdated stereotypes. Celebrating women's strength, beauty, and achievements in all their splendid diversity paves the way for a more equal and inclusive society.
  • A safer space for a louder voice.

Creating an environment that encourages open dialogue, respects diverse perspectives, and prioritises safety and inclusivity gives women the power to express themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination.

These points have been said and written repeatedly, but they never seem to disappear because they have yet to become a reality. If they had, I would have been asked about the most significant campaigns I have led, not about my supposed talent in the kitchen.

Nicole Briones is Vero Philippines’ operations director.

Campaign Asia

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