Christie Lee
Nov 19, 2020

It’s time to tackle unconscious bias in APAC

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) priorities are different in different countries. We caught up with four marketing leaders from across APAC at Essence to talk about what gender equity means, why paternity leave needs to become the norm and why we’ll never stop talking about diversity.

It’s time to tackle unconscious bias in APAC

This is part of an article series for Campaign Asia-Pacific's Women to Watch 2020, created in partnership with Essence, as part of their diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

Given how diverse APAC is, it’s an inevitability that diversity will mean different things to different countries and regions. While in India, the DEI conversation might revolve around gender diversity at all organisational levels, in Australia, a particularly hot topic is the ‘bamboo ceiling’. To understand more about the nuances of diversity in APAC, Campaign spoke to four marketing leaders from Essence:

  • Athena Bughao, associate vice president, search and biddable media activation, APAC

  • Atrayee Chakraborty, vice president, media planning, India

  • Kota Murakami, associate vice president, client services, Japan and Korea

  • Stephanie Shang, head of media, Australia

The different faces of diversity 

For Athena Bughao, AVP, search and biddable media activation, APAC, diversity isn’t just about having people from different races and nationalities, it’s also about ensuring everyone’s views get heard. 

“Many companies hire people of all kinds of ages, religions, language abilities but if you disregard these differences and tell everyone to conform to a single way of thinking, that’s not true diversity,” she says. “These diverse views may result in initial discomfort, but that’s because they’re challenging the norm, and allowing individuals to go beyond their own limits.” 

Atrayee Chakraborty, VP, media planning, India, concurs. “Diversity isn’t a burden but a potential strength.” In India, the call for diversity often means the call for gender diversity. “If you look at Fortune 500 companies, women only make up 6.6% of CEO positions. In India, women only make up 3.7% of CEO or MD positions.”  

Gender diversity is also one of Japan’s most pressing workplace issues, with the country ranking 121 out of 153 countries for gender parity in a 2020 World Economic Forum report. According to Kota Murakami, AVP, client services, Japan and Korea, women face a lot of systemic barriers in the workplace. “The Japanese government previously set a target to increase women in leadership positions to 30% by 2020. That has now been postponed to ‘as early as possible by 2030’. And Japan is the third biggest economy in the world!”

While gender diversity is generally lacking at the senior leadership level in Australia, another type of equity, perhaps, has come into sharper focus in the country in recent years: cultural diversity. 

According to a recent report on diversity in Australian media, 100% of free-to-air television national news directors in Australia are men of an Anglo-Celtic background, and more than 75% of all news presenters, commentators and reporters are also of an Anglo-Celtic background. 

“In marketing, we debate whether the cast for ads are racially diverse enough, yet people in the industry don’t always ask that of the organisations they work for - where the majority is same same and hardly different,” notes Stephane Shang, head of media, Australia. 

The no. 1 challenge facing diversity in APAC: unconscious bias 

The DEI conversation isn’t new. Yet, according to Campaign Asia-Pacific and Kantar’s latest diversity survey, only 48% say men and women are treated equally in their organisation, compared with 68% in 2017, and 43% believe that they are judged by race, up 20% from 2017. In other words, all is not well. 

What are some challenges to corporate diversity in 2020? 

Having been asked ‘what makes you a better female manager’, Bughao knows a thing or two about unconscious bias - and believes it’s one of the major challenges facing diversity in the workplace. “I said, what’s the difference between a male and a female manager?”

In India, unconscious bias around gender runs far and deep. “We hear about it - for example, women are meant for HR, men are meant for finance. During hiring processes, women are sometimes asked, “Are you pregnant? When are you planning to get married?” There is a perception that once married, women will quit their jobs. As a result, some employers aren’t inclined to invest in female talent,” notes Chakraborty. 

"Informal networking sessions after hours may exclude women with family responsibilities too, impacting their exposure to senior stakeholders, and as a result, their career opportunities and growth", she adds. 

Stereotypes also affect men. In Japan, a challenge is the stigma associated with paternal care. While the rising popularity of the word ‘ikumen’ (a Japanese word combining ‘childcare’ and ‘hunk’) is a sign that more fathers are taking on childcare responsibilities, those who take paternity leave are still in the single digits. Many still fear income loss or penalisation from their companies. “There needs to be more support from companies for fathers to take paternity leave. It also helps mothers who want to go back to work,” says Murakami. 

In Australia, the ‘bamboo ceiling’ is preventing Asians from taking up senior positions, according to Shang. While Asian-Australians comprise 12% of the population, they only take up about 3% of senior leadership positions in public institutions and ASX 200 companies. “As an ethnicity, we get stereotyped as being agreeable, not too opinionated and not being able to lead,” says Shang. 

How does diversity lead to organisational success? 

For the four marketing leaders, it’s a no-brainer that a diverse workforce will lead to organisational success. 

First, it increases productivity. “If an organisation believes that its lifeblood is its people, it goes without saying that if people flourish, the company will prosper too. When people feel more engaged, they’re more motivated, which leads to productivity,” Bughao notes. 

In the fast-changing media and advertising industry, having a diverse workforce also means the ability to leverage different skill sets to respond to shifting market demands. 

“Organisational success is based upon value exchange between the organisation and the audience that it serves. I don’t think the company and its people are mutually exclusive. People are definitely at the core of the value equation that is fundamental to organisational success,” says Murakami. 

According to Shang, respecting diversity also increases talent retention rate. 

“In the Australian media industry, there is a 27.2% turnover rate and 11.5% eventually leave the industry for good. If we keep talent, the resources in training new staff can instead be redirected towards research and development, and new businesses. 

How to achieve DEI in the workplace: some actionable points 

Getting together to talk about DEI is all good and well, but having objective data points by which one can measure whether a company is truly being diverse in every layer of organisation is also crucial. 

At Essence, for example, 55% of the workforce is female, versus 45% male. At the leadership level, 43% is female, with that number hitting 48% among senior vice presidents. These numbers are important, as it allows the organisation and leadership teams to set clearer DEI plans and benchmarks. 

For Chakraborty, such a plan can take the form of D (define), identify (I), mentor (M) and compensate (C). “First, you need to define what high potential means, then you identify, you train employees who show promise, in hopes of elevating them to senior roles. Mentoring is also very important - for both men and women. Finally, you need to ensure that everyone is fairly compensated.” 

Yet, DEI is also more than a numbers game. After all, there are issues that can’t be solved with numbers and quotas, including unconscious bias, which has a detrimental impact on employees who are at the receiving end of it - and yet, that impact cannot be truly quantified. 

“We need to be more intentional about driving inclusion, whether at the management levels or during the hiring process. Lines of communication need to be open to all, to ensure that real issues are identified, and not only isolated instances that might be the by-product of a larger, deeper issue,” says Bughao. 

Another thing that isn’t easily quantifiable is to be mindful that an employee’s life exists beyond being an ID on the payroll. Shang is aware that an organisation’s treatment of staff members has a direct impact on business performance and retention rates. 

“We have someone on the team who’s in charge of picking the kids up to and from school. If that means he needs to clock in at 10:30am and out at 4:30pm, that’s fine. For new parents, why not offer them a three-day work week to begin with, as a way to eventually ease them back into a full-time cycle, so the experience isn’t so alienating.”

Is there an end goal to diversity? 

And perhaps that’s really at the core of diversity. If we strip away the marketing jargon, diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace is ultimately about being empathetic enough to do something about it. 

Will we ever reach a point where we don’t have to talk about it anymore? Not really.

As Murakami says, “I don’t think we should stop talking about it. What we think is the right level of diversity right now might not hold true in the future.” Shang concurs, “We’re at stage one, so we’re talking about things like race and gender now. As time goes on, more nuances will be unpacked, and we’ll figure out what diversity means then.”

Campaign Asia

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