Jessica Goodfellow
Mar 9, 2020

What it's like being a woman in adtech

Campaign's anonymous survey of senior women in adtech paints a bleak picture of a Mad Man-era 'boys club' culture, workplace harassment, and the struggle towards C-suite leadership.

What it's like being a woman in adtech

Adtech doesn’t have a good reputation when it comes to gender diversity. A combination of two historically male-dominated industries—advertising and technology—adtech has adopted many of the worst aspects of both; the ‘boys club’ culture of advertising, the insular, at times condescending, culture of technology. It is an industry that has defined itself by extravagance—super yachts at Cannes, expensive sales retreats, star-studded parties, conference stands manned by scantily clad women. It isn’t a welcoming culture for women. 

Recently, the infant has started to grow up. Realising this culture looks horribly outdated in the current climate, companies have begun making an effort both to hire more women and create a culture in which they would want to work. But there’s still a long way to go. Still today, many women report feeling alienated, and very few adtech spokespeople are female. The responsibility for this lies with two camps; the companies themselves, and media. If journalists demanded more female adtech spokespeople for editorial and events, this would create more of an incentive for the companies. We are waking up to this at Campaign Asia-Pacific, and have begun conducting gender audits of our editorial. But we can always do more.

So in order to paint a picture of the current climate for women working in adtech in Asia-Pacific—in an attempt to show where progress still needs to be made—we have conducted a range of interviews and an anonymous survey with a collection of senior women that hold regional roles at major adtech firms. Most of these women have worked at various adtech firms and have provided insight built up over a number of years.

Here is what we found.

Surprisingly, the overall proportion of men and women in adtech is positive. Collating results from the survey, on average, more than half (57%) of those working in adtech are female. However, this figure drops to 33% at a senior level.

Despite this, only one respondent recalls ever seeing an equal-pay or pay-gap audit conducted at an adtech company they have worked at, and that one example was in Australia.

Thankfully, gender diversity initiatives are becoming more commonplace in the adtech industry: 71% said their companies have implemented formal programmes, half of which were put in place only in the past year. These initiatives are commonly driven by a female head of HR, one respondent noted.

“Most of the initiatives land back on a woman's plate to drive and steer,” another respondent pointed out (this is by no means unique to adtech, as noted in our recent feature, "Are men still passing responsibility for gender diversity initiatives to women?").

Adtech’s gender imbalance is deeply rooted in education (see today's related op-ed column, "Adtech's gender imbalance starts at the source"). Historically girls have been encouraged to pursue arts and boys STEM subjects. Now that is changing, with more women pursuing careers in engineering and related fields, the availability of female talent will help rebalance the industry.

But there’s also a cultural aspect to the imbalance. The industry is still battling with remnants of the “Mad Men days of advertising”, several women said. Boys-only lunches, golf trips, and after-work drinks remain commonplace, and it can be difficult for women to break into this, especially when they have to balance work with being a mother.

Some women also believe that some men don’t register diversity as a business problem. As one respondent eloquently surmised: “There are few leaders who comprehend that growth, in all areas, comes from looking around a board table and seeing people who don't look like you.”

The male-skew within the C-suites of adtech means many women feel that they are not given equal opportunity to join the industry at a senior level—although three-quarters acknowledge the industry is getting better at hiring women at a junior level.

The same issue means more than half the women feel as though their gender has held them back from progressing in the industry, as one respondent cited: “It [my gender] has not held me back up until the C level, when the bias becomes more visible.”

Half of respondents also revealed they have experienced some form of discrimination by male colleagues in the workplace. They spoke of being labelled “emotional” when expressing their views, having their ideas "hepeated" (when a man appropriates a woman's ideas and then is praised for them being his own) and not being given the same opportunities to speak or attend events as their male counterparts. Some senior men “don't understand the inherent bias of how they do business”, and women who stand up to this are branded “difficult”, one respondent noted.

What is most distressing is that half of respondents describe experiencing or witnessing harassment within the workplace and there being “no safe way to report it”. One respondent described minor harassment as “commonplace”—saying women are subject to sexist or derogatory comments often, and without consequence. This needs to urgently be addressed: it should not be part and parcel of being a woman in adtech.

It is major problems like this that can often contribute to women serving short tenures in the adtech industry—just under half (43%) of respondents state they have witnessed women leaving the industry due to not feeling respected or supported as a woman.

In a green shoot of hope, the vast majority of respondents feel that adtech is aware of these issues and the need to address them. But more concrete action is needed rather than just paying lipservice. Suggestions include: gender pay gap reviews, C-suite quotas, training on unconscious bias, mentorship for junior women, creating a framework to identify and report harassment. One respondent pointed out that “money is power”, and called for companies to only sponsor or speak at events that have a diverse and inclusive agenda.

And what if, for a change, these initiatives were internally suggested or led by a man?

If you're interested in new ideas and strategies to promote diversity and inclusion, we will be hosting Campaign Leading Change 2020 Conference & Awards (formerly Women Leading Change) on May 28 at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

Campaign Asia

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