Olivia Parker
Mar 20, 2017

Mind the gap: How gender inequality in marketing compares to other industries

Marketing and advertising are not alone in dealing with gender inequality. Olivia Parker looks at what lessons can be gleaned from other industries.

Common woes: Similar stories of gender inequality emerge from marketing, technology, law and finance sectors.
Common woes: Similar stories of gender inequality emerge from marketing, technology, law and finance sectors.

To what extent are the gender equality issues looked at by Campaign Asia-Pacific this month specific to advertising and marcomms? It’s largely an unanswered question. Gender research, in Asia in particular, tends to focus on assessing workplaces by market or within individual industries rather than cross-sector comparisons.

Even the briefest look over the wall at other professional services — such as finance, law or technology — however, reveals a starkly similar set of issues affecting women.

In almost all sectors in the region, there is a familiar shortage of women at top decision-making tables. Hard numbers on this issue don’t exist in advertising and marketing in Asia-Pacific, but according to Ranji David, marketing director for the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), the imbalance is real. While women are well-represented among advertisers, she says, “I suspect you’ll get a very different story on the gender balance — or imbalance — if you’re agency-side, publisher-side or client-side and if you drilled down to look at representation across specific roles.”

This article is part of a package of features:
Gender inequality in APAC adland: Scope, causes and cures

In several other industries, figures provide a far more precise representation of the situation. In APAC financial firms, for example, just 13 percent of executives and 14 percent of board members are female, according to management consultancy Oliver Wyman. 

As a marcomms expert with much experience in private banks in Asia, Angela Watkins has had a unique perspective on the industries and says inequality at the top of both is extensive. In her view, the number of women in boardrooms is generally determined by a company’s willingness to be challenged. “Women when they are [at the top] are judged in a different way from men,” she says. “When women speak out they are sometimes seen as difficult and disagreeable, whereas men are seen as adding more value.”

The financial world also struggles with affinity bias at the upper levels, says Manasy Vidyasagar, a consultant with PwC Hong Kong and co-chair of the Women in Finance Asia committee. “Those who are hiring are promoting people they’ve generally already met, at a higher level. They would like to see someone like themselves in these positions,” she says, adding she believes an underlying gender prejudice still exists. “If you mention to someone ‘Do you know the CFO of this organisation?’, it’s immediately a man’s figure that comes into your head.”

Is it a similar story in the marketing world? “Definitely yes,” says Shilpi Khurana, CMO for Ferrero Asia Limited. “It’s a joke that we have in our office — my hotel reservations always come back with ‘Mr Shilpi Khurana’, even though I may have stayed at the property before.” 

Switching to the legal profession, law firms across Asia explain the lack of female seniority by high rates of attrition among women lawyers at a specific level. It’s around six or seven years into their role as an associate, when women are in their 20s and early 30s. “Why the drop off? That’s the $100 million question,” says Anna-Marie Slot, a partner at Ashurst who has worked in Hong Kong for the past eight years. “You get people saying, ‘Well, everybody is leaving for individual reasons, therefore it’s not a trend’ — but actually, if you look at the numbers it is a trend.”

How much management cares about the loss of so many female employees varies firm by firm, she continues. “There definitely are areas in law firms where its not acknowledged as a problem. They don’t get the fact that it’s not that you’re losing half of your employees, it’s that you’re potentially losing some of your best employees.”

Drop-off is an issue in marketing and advertising as well. Again, there is little hard data to support this, but industry insiders say it happens more towards the top of the ladder than the middle. Khurana thinks that women quit the industry before reaching the highest levels because of both societal expectations and the nature of the job. “[Marketing] involves long hours, work on weekends, extended periods of travel that would keep you away from family and personal commitments,” she says. 

Some marketing and law firms in the industry are starting to tackle this phenomenon, using various different approaches. “The firms that are doing it well are the ones that are communicating a lot more with people about what they want and where they want to go,” says Slot. “No one really asks a male associate: ‘Do you want to be become a partner?’ It’s an assumption. Whereas they say to females: ‘Are you interested in being a partner?’ Well yes, that’s why I’m here at 2am.” The conversations need to change, she says. 

Juliet Timms, founder of Grace Blue, a global executive search firm for the marketing and media world, would have her industry go a step further. “I would like to see all businesses setting positive targets for the number of women in leadership roles throughout the organisation,” she says. “If you set a target for equality, like all business targets, it is something businesses can positively work towards.”

Slot feels strongly that the way to kickstart a healthier attitude to women in the workplace is through equal paternity leave policies. 

“Then it’s not a question of male or female, it’s a question of whether you want to hire people who don’t have children or people who do have children,” she explains.

A solution like equal paternity leave has the potential to make a major impact in even more drastically gender-imbalanced industries, such as technology. The latest survey by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore showed only 30 percent female representation in tech. In China, meanwhile, tech-accelerator for female-led start-ups Techbase estimates that women founded just 10 percent of new tech ventures. There are similar figures in India.

Three things need to change before women see technology as a completely equal industry, says Sarah Huang, head of technology and innovation at Burda International Asia: acceptance, no pay-gap, and changes in internet culture. “From what I’ve seen at startup events, tech events in this region, it’s extremely biased, whether it’s because there is a lack of females in the industry or because of inherent sub-cultures in internet, gaming and technology,” she says.

The worry for the marcomms industry is that as technology gains importance in marketing practice and the two industries start to merge, tech’s gender problems might start to infiltrate as well. 

This could be a potential issue, says Ferrero’s Khurana. To combat it, she believes the industry needs to create a set of new, martech-specific working practices, such as the development of more inclusive work environments with the opportunity to work flexible hours and from home.

At the same time, asserts Joanne Wong, head of marketing, Asia-Pacific, at security intelligence company LogRhythm, companies or departments hiring in martech need to keep an open mind regarding gender. 

“There are many women out there who will be willing to sit down and discuss data analytics, the latest cyber threats or the impact of Internet of Things,” she says. “However, for women to be able to grab these opportunities, we still need to instil a mindset shift. Decision-makers need to look past gender and evaluate based on capabilities.”

If they do, she continues, martech might become a good opportunity for women to be involved in a male-dominant world.

“As technology and marketing come together, we can remove the stereotype that women are only suited for certain industries,” she says. 

Only once such associations are thoroughly busted will women and men be able to enjoy equal working opportunities — no matter what their day job may be.

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