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Published on Campaign Asia

A TBWA-supported roundtable involving members of Campaign’s 2018 Women to Watch list underlines the need for new approaches for a more inclusive workforce.

Three years ago Fearless Girl had not yet arrived on Wall Street. There was no #MeToo movement. Gustavo Martinez was still leading JWT worldwide, and Kevin Roberts was the global chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi. Things were about to change, in some ways more than others. 


It’s only been three years since TBWA began supporting Campaign’s Women to Watch initiatives on gender and diversity. Campaign's brand director Atifa Silk and Jane Fraser, TBWA’s regional marketing and communications director see just how far the conversation has come. “When we first started talking, we were really talking about the mentoring and just raising the bar," Fraser said to Silk during a TBWA-supported roundtable discussion held recently in Singapore and moderated by Silk. The event also included members of Campaign’s 2018 Women to Watch. "Now it has shifted to the experiences people are having and how exposed they are to wider diversity as well.”


“Diversity [now] is kind of like ‘digital’ 10 years ago,” adds Doug Melville, TBWA’s global chief diversity officer. “There was one person who was the chief digital officer. Ten years later it’s kind of assumed everybody has the software to understand the digital ecosystem and I think that’s where this conversation is. In ten years, [diversity] will be part of everyone’s operating system.”


That will be a welcome day for most, since even the most ardent voices for change suffer from ‘diversity fatigue’ brought on by year of endless talk and little action. But as every organization focuses on data-driven goals, more ‘talk’ is being put into practice in programs like TBWA’s Take the Lead initiative which started in 2015 with a concrete goal of increasing the proportion of women in leadership positions by 20% by 2020. Diversity discussions are now framed around measured results (TBWA says it’s 75% of the way there). 


Yet one might argue that news headlines around gender equality may be overstating the pace of actual change within organisations. The diversity agenda has become “incredible proactive” in recruiting over the past two to three years, noted Charlie Thomas, CEO of The Talent Business, yet C-suites remain male-dominated globally because the talent pool at that level has not yet become diverse enough. Similarly, women may now be encouraged to take maternity leave and supported in doing so, yet when they resume their careers it’s often on a slower-track to advancement.


But there are shifting undercurrents below the C-suite. One tier down, at the managing director or executive director levels the majority of the hires in regions like North America are women, noted Thomas, “which is fantastic and that’s building the pipeline to the C-suite.” His hope is that these changes will spread to other regions in Asia as well, where a similar phenomenon is slowly taking shape among top creative leadership. Meanwhile the barriers for women returning from mat leave “are being very aggressively dealt with” Thomas said, as governments and larger employers provide more support for healthcare and child care.


Mixed experiences across Asia


Women in Asia particularly still suffer from a double burden of both caring for children and parents, noted Kathryn Haynes, Asia-Pacific communications director at McKinsey & Company, who shared findings from the company's Power of Parity report on Asia. “It’s very difficult to apply one descriptor to all of Asia-Pacific, it’s such a diverse region and women have such diverse experiences in each market,” Haynes said. China ranks highly for women breaking through in tech, for instance, while the Philippines, despite scoring poorly for women in society, ranked tops for women in the workplace.


“I was really only made aware of the gender equality [issue] when I moved to Singapore,” said Marrah Africa, senior manager of training and certification for APAC at MediaMath’s New Marketing Institute. “When I was in the Philippines I’ve always had a senior female leader in the company… there was enough equality that I was exposed to” Africa adds. 


Africa was not the only member of this year’s Women to Watch list who felt she has had opportunities to succeed across Asia whether workplaces were male dominated or not.


Monica Chia, SEO director for Asia-Pacific at Reprise explained how she began her specialization in the UK where the field was dominated by young white men. “Coming to Singapore what I felt was that there were a lot more women in search marketing and in digital which for me was very refreshing.”


Geet Rathi, design director at TBWA India said she marvels at the number of younger women stepping out all the time, particularly self-employed entrepreneurs who have started their own companies and work in cafés, though not all women are bold enough yet. Dwarfed by India’s huge populations “there are so many of them who have to come out of their shell,” Rathi said.


The diversity agenda beyond gender


The barriers to career advancement, the roundtable agreed, extend well beyond gender for men and women across Asia-Pacific, which is why a broader diversity agenda around inclusion is needed.


“It’s not just about gender. It’s about the LGBT crowd, introverts versus extroverts,” said Linda Lee, head of communications at Southeast Asia and North Asia at LinkedIn. “There are so many different types of diversity.”


Ageism in advertising is another big issue for Thomas. “It’s shocking. Shocking the number of conversations one has about [older] talent that has so much to contribute,” he adds.


For Melville, all types of diversity intersect. He argues you can’t just focus on one part of it to have a healthy organization. “The analogy I give is like spot weight loss. You just can’t lose weight in your left arm. You’ve got to commit to the whole body.”


Unless you create a welcoming community for all types of people at work, Melville said, and for larger agencies or companies that means hiring more than single token members of a certain age group, disability or orientation.


“We go by rule of threes. If there’s only one person who’s in the office, they leave. If there’s two people in the office they go for lunch together every day, then they leave together. But if we get a third person in, we can make some change,” Melville said.


“You can drop out of the ranks if you don’t see someone like yourselves,” added 2018 Woman to Watch Brenda Han, now managing partner of Ogilvy in Singapore, who started earlier in her career in the UK. “I’m very much the introvert Asian – which I’ve really had to work on, especially starting in London where everyone’s just so frickin’ flambuoyant,” she laughs. Han said she feels responsible for helping other introverted Chinese girls to feel comfortable enough to speak their mind. “There’s diversity of thought and usually it’s more well-considered…otherwise there’s just going to be loud go-getters. You need a mix of energies and you need a mixed cast for clients and accounts to get the best work out.”


A new approach to recruiting


Creating that mix then requires a fresh approach to hiring, several roundtable participants pointed out. The current system of CV-gathering puts more weight on work experience than other qualities. Rathi, Chia and Africa noted their education bore little direct relation to their eventual professions, yet schooling also features prominently on most resumes still.


Large organisations that have to deal with large volumes of applicants are particularly vulnerable to a cookie-cutter approach, notes Thomas, and internal teams will default to zeroing in on past employers rather than lateral skills that can be transferred.


“I think this is really relevant for women that we have to get better at hiring on potential, not just previous performance and experience,” argued Haynes. There’s no insight into anyone’s value system in a typical CV she said. “What do they value and what is culturally so important to them? Those things would be so important to see.”


“I think those things that really define one’s character are very rarely work-related” said Miranda Dimopoulos, CEO at IAB Singapore. “I always look for what is the story behind the person. The values are almost the hardest to discover. Is this person at their core a dickhead?” she laughed.


Lee said people’s profiles on LinkedIn don’t need to just be about where one works but about what one has achieved and is proud of. “At the same time I think it goes both ways,” she argued. The talent that you want to attract should come through on your own brand. If [an agency] wants to hire different types of people, they also need to know that you are looking for them. The reason why I joined LinkedIn is because of their culture, it’s so diverse.”


Opening doors for your teams


Christopher Iki, COO at TBWA\Hakuhodo in Japan, agreed. “We find the younger employees want something that aligns with what their aspirations and values are. It’s not just about the job.”


But creating a diverse team of mixed energies is hard work and can be even harder to find in some Asian markets where work culture is more homogeneous. To tackle this, Iki helps run a program with its sister agency in Melbourne which involves sending a Japanese creative team to Australia for a year where they get a completely different experience living and working.  “Once this team comes back they’ve transformed into completely different people,” Iki said, describing how a young quiet and timid art director returned as a changed person. “Now she’s one of the first people in the office, she sits right in the middle of the creative department, she speaks up, she has an opinion…she’s very vocal now.” The results have been so positive, Iki said, that they’re extending the program to a wider range of teams in the agency.


Not every employee of course, can be so fortunate, which is why the roundtable circled back to the importance of serving as strong role models. 


“I take that responsibility quite seriously,” Dimopolous said, jokingly adding “anytime I feel like siphoning money.” She said it’s incumbent upon those who have reached a certain level to help bring others up, not necessarily through formal programmes either.


But no matter how much many current leaders want to prioritise pushing diverse talent up the ranks, Lee pointed out that sometimes, managers have to accept that not all employees share their aims. “Young people are not always looking to climb the corporate ladder, because that’s not what they always want in life.”


The key, it seems, is remaining open to all kinds of people who want to contribute in different ways, respecting the values that they have.



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