Trezelene Chan Jane Ng
Jun 4, 2019

Opinion: We've been talking about diversity for years, but not pushing hard enough to deliver on our promises

The Kantar researchers who partnered with Campaign to compile our third report on diversity in Asia's marketing and advertising industry describe their response to the challenges raised in this year's findings—and the way forward.

Jane Ng, left, and Trezelene Chan of Kantar
Jane Ng, left, and Trezelene Chan of Kantar
Read our full analysis of the results of Kantar and Campaign Asia-Pacific's 2019 Diversity Study, which is being presented at the Women Leading Change conference in Singapore today. 

When we started investigating the state of equality within Asia’s media and marketing industry back in 2017, the iconic Fearless Girl statue had just been unveiled outside the New York Stock Exchange. The world was on the cusp of the #MeToo movement. Momentum around gender equality was gathering pace both in the West and in Asia, and people were becoming far more confident to talk about the issues that they had seen and experienced.

Our results back then didn’t surprise us. We found that women in the region felt unfairly judged, pigeonholed into 'feminine' roles, and challenged on their assertive behaviours when they tried to lead. But in the wake of a huge amount of airtime, conversations and convictions, we hoped to see a seismic shift in the situation.

Fast-forward two years, and it appears the situation is actually getting worse. We were both shocked to see that the number of people who say that men and women are treated equally in their organisation has dropped by 15%—from 84% in 2017 to 71% in 2019. Over half of people think that men are more respected by top management, a figure that has doubled since 2017. And interestingly, both men and women agree that things aren’t improving.

The conversation around gender caused us to confront wider inequality questions—those of race, age, sexuality, religion and disability—and an undercurrent of bias that is relatively obvious, but not much discussed. Only 29% of people regionally reported that they thought that everyone was equally respected, and it was clear that cultural clashes cause many to feel uncomfortable in their workplaces.

It’s not enough to implement a new initiative if it’s going to be at odds with the way that people have always interacted in the workplace throughout their career.

Reading the experiences of people across the region, we were alarmed to see that so much stereotyping and racism still exists in such a widespread manner. It felt like we have made little progress with equality, despite the amount of focus it has received around the world.

However, the silver lining is that people are becoming far more confident in calling out what they view as wrong and what is stopping us from becoming a more diverse and inclusive region. Women are no longer accepting the status quo and are sign-posting bad behaviour. Awareness around all types of inequality is on the rise. Now we need to do something concrete about it. We hope the courage of these voices helps bring about even greater momentum to change things.

Many people said that they believe their organisations are starting to implement changes to improve the situation. But it’s not enough to implement a new initiative if it’s going to be at odds with the way that people have always interacted in the workplace throughout their career. We know from this year’s Diversity Study that there has been a rise in unconscious bias training, and that people find it useful. Options like this can help open people’s eyes to the problem and be more mindful of the way they behave, but will it change behaviours that are entrenched within the industry? It’s clear that current initiatives aren’t making a marked difference.

Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa and his colleagues at the Institute for Personal Leadership believe that a focus on individuals will deliver change quickly. We love his analogy for change: Wadhwa says that leaders often feel like they need to come in to a business and "drain the swamp". Instead, they should encourage individual employees to "become a lotus, a flower that blooms in the middle of muddy conditions". When employees take personal responsibility, limit their own biases and, importantly, call out others when they say or act in a negative way, they drive change. These employees set an example and encourage and inspire more lotuses to bloom.  

Changing people’s behaviour is key. Change can be accomplished, but it needs to happen in a thoughtful way. Firstly, it needs to be made easy—whether through setting a specific and realistic goal for the businesses or individual or making a plan linked routine. Secondly, it needs to be framed to personal values, identities or interests. For example, how does diversity and inclusion tap into employees’ desires to be successful in their careers? How can we show that it is in the best interest of employees to eliminate their biases? Finally, making a public commitment. As an industry, we have been talking about this for years, but have not been pushing ourselves hard enough to deliver on our promises—or holding each other accountable.

Diversity issues are not new. We have been trying to make changes for years, yet change is still not truly felt on the ground. Are we are genuinely putting words into action or are we simply paying lip service to the movement? We believe the most important thing is to act now while people are still receptive. There’s been a lot of talk about change, but we can see that talk is not getting us anywhere. We all need to reflect and take responsibility for our biases, then work on the concrete actions that will make the experience better for everyone in the industry.

Trezelene Chan and Jane Ng are managing directors in the Insights Division at Kantar Singapore. The Campaign Kantar Diversity Study investigated men and women's perceptions and experiences of equality in media and marketing workplaces across Asia Pacific in May 2019.

Campaign Asia

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