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Published on Campaign Asia

The talent is out there, but achieving diversity in the workforce and leadership ranks requires companies to be flexible and understanding. 


TBWA president of Asia, Philip Brett, believes that solving the gender diversity problem requires an active and united approach. “As an agency, we felt that while it’s good that there is a debate around the gender diversity issue, we don’t want to sit on the sidelines, manage the issue and pay lip service,” he said as part of his opening address to a roundtable discussion aimed at tackling the issue.


The event, held in conjunction with Campaign Asia-Pacific’s annual Women to Watch series and in partnership with TBWA, had a mission in mind: to tackle the lack of diversity within the industry’s leadership ranks — a serious gap which needs to be addressed, agreed the 11 roundtable participants. 


The gulf is more cavernous when set against the backdrop of an industry that prides itself on its ability to move with the times, and a business that relies on deep cultural consumer insights. The issue has come to the fore in recent years as contemporary attitudes start to clash severely with archaic mindsets. The recent exposure of prehistoric points of view has generated media attention and, hopefully, sparked much-needed change in the industry’s rather laid-back approach to the problem.


“There is a lot of opportunity in Asia but more can be done as it is also a region that has many different social and cultural norms,” Brett added. “We have to ensure that in every market we create a positive environment that invites people to join the industry and stay to reach the very top level.”


Sticky gender traditions


To help set the scene, Astrid Tuminez, regional director of legal and corporate affairs in Southeast Asia for Microsoft, shared several insights from her research into female leadership in Asia.


The rise of Asia, where 13 economies have enjoyed at least 5 percent growth year-on-year for 25 years, marked unprecedented growth. But what caught Tuminez’s attention was that while the region was enjoying prosperity and better access to education and healthcare, the fundamental views around “girl versus boy” did not change.


“The pathway of women, from birth to job opportunities and reaching the top of the ladder is still full of obstacles,” she said. “The culture is so sticky in terms of holding women back.”


Tuminez pointed to the rich economies of South Korea and Japan where “you’d be lucky to see 2 percent” of leadership roles at director level and above filled by women. And even in Singapore, which prides itself on its meritocracy, women do not fare much better.


According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business report, there were high numbers of women in senior roles in the Philippines and Thailand, at 37 percent and 36 percent respectively. China, India and Japan saw numbers of 25 percent, 15 percent and 8 percent in 2015.

The difference in gender ratios between markets within the region can be quite glaring but there’s hope. Masako Okamura, executive creative director at Dentsu Vietnam, said that when she first joined Dentsu in Japan, only about 5 percent of the creative team were women but today it is 30 percent. 


“Japanese women are humble — well, except for me,” she said. “I pushed my management hard for opportunities to grow.”


In the Vietnam office, however, the agency boasts 70 percent women. “It could be that Vietnamese women are more ambitious than Vietnamese men,” she said. “But I think it also has to do with the fact that due to the Vietnam war, women had to join the workforce and now their presence has become the norm.”


A shift in mindset is crucial, noted founder of Ninety Nine Percent, Calvin Soh, echoing Tuminez’s point on the stickiness of traditional perceptions of norms. He said men needed to become aware of the male privilege they enjoyed but which they don’t see. He has strived to impart this perspective upon his children since quitting the industry five years ago to be a full-time father.


“From where a man is sitting, things are normal; he doesn’t see that women are paid less and have to get past a glass ceiling,” he said. “For there to be equilibrium in the current see-saw, there are stages where women will have to push harder, for the industry to say ‘Yes, in this case we will be weighted toward women because we have to be.’”


But at the same time, Soh said that moves toward equality could come across like oppression causing some men to feel women had “taken too much”. “We have to help men see the imbalance because we think it’s normal,” he added. “It is invisible to us.”


The mid-career roadblock


In 40 C-suite searches The Talent Business has conducted in Asia since 2013, only one successful candidate in 10 was female, the company’s managing director, Charlie Thomas shared with the panel. 


However, at the next level down, 40 searches to fill roles at director or general manager level saw 21 successful female candidates. 


“I think this is illustrative of the wealth of female talent but what’s missing is capturing the leadership talent,” he said. “It’s insane that we’re not able to present even long-lists that are far more balanced.”


Tuminez believes that today more than ever, women are ready to take the lead in the workforce. “We have women who are ready, just starting their careers that are ambitious and educated,” she said. “But the most vulnerable stage is the mid-career point, when women choose to have children.”


The challenge then is how companies and the industry community can address that crucial point where women are dropping out. “The help can’t be clichéd as well — you have to feel their pain,” she said. “Because if women get nonsense at work while thinking about the children at home, they will quit because it is not worth it.”


Georgette Tan, head of communications at MasterCard APAC, shared that at an event she attended, many of the attendees were young mid-career women, and that they had voiced concerns around this issue.


“Work-life balance is thrown out the window. It’s going back to the basic issue of where do they go and how do they get to where they want to be,” she said. “If they take a break to have children, how do they get back into the system, where do they even start?”


Regional associate creative director at DigitasLBI, Knox Balbastro said that the message she had been hearing from senior creatives when it comes to having children was: “Wait till as late as possible.”


“When I was at Cannes Lions for the ‘See it, be it’ programme, one South American creative director had just won a Gold Lion and said her next goal is to have children,” she said. “The mentors were supportive saying that it’s your choice but shared that they themselves waited as long as they could to have children. I think it’s quite unhealthy but also I think it’s because support systems aren’t in place.”


All roundtable participants agreed that keeping women in the workforce was important, especially to ensure diversity of candidates in the leadership pipeline — particularly from the creative ranks.


Thomas said that agencies had a responsibility to enable women to continue to grow in their careers after taking a break to have children. 


“But many agencies remain unable to do so, to recapture momentum and get them to leadership level,” he added.


Valerie Cheng, head of Creative Shop for Southeast Asia at Facebook, recalled that when she had her first child, she was 27 years old. “To be honest, I don’t recall how I brought him up,” she said. “But 10 years later, now with my second child, it’s funny how I can do my work better in less time and I can probably raise more children and still do the work perfectly well.”


Cheng said she believed this came with experience and confidence, and knowing that you can work smarter. She added that this was one area companies could look at in the quest to help retain talent. “What if companies had internal training for staff on how to balance their lives instead of just training on best practices?” she asked. “Good people will always give 150 percent but if they feel that they’re compromising on work they will give up, thinking it’s not right for the company. But truth is, they’re not giving up anything if they learn to manage their time better.”


Cheng added that trust and faith from the company were also important: employees need to be confident that as long as they deliver, management doesn’t care whether they are in the office or not. In addition, managers need to take a bigger role in ensuring that high performers take a break from work to minimise burnout.


Linda Locke, founder of Godmother Consulting, said the bigger problem, beyond gender, was the general lack of suitable talent.“I’ve never looked at gender, I only look at talent,” she said. “It’s so hard to find good talent that I find it hard believe that anyone in senior management wouldn’t kill for good candidates, male or female.” 


Locke added that the dearth of candidates was more keenly felt in creative, compared to other roles such as accounts servicing or planning. She said she found it hard to find creative women and even harder to find one with leadership skills as that required the ability to manage people and understand finance.


“If I saw one woman for every nine men that walked in with a portfolio, that’s rare,” she added. 


Jacqui Lim, CEO of Havas Media Group, Singapore, echoed Locke’s observations, sharing that media agencies enjoy a “natural influx” of women into theirs ranks. 


“There are many women in leadership roles, and in Singapore I believe the majority of media agencies are helmed by women,” she said. “The challenges are around enabling support, if someone needs to go to handle a family matter then someone can cover for them, if a company can’t get someone to do so then there’s something wrong.” Lim added that the growth of digital meant media agency ranks would most likely see a better mix of talent in the coming years as well.


Attracting millennials


It could be that the very things that women wish from their companies, such as flexible hours, support and training, will come thanks to the need to address another phenomenon — the growing millennial workforce.


Joanne Lao, chief executive officer at TBWA, China, said that compared to other markets, there were more Chinese women in leadership roles overall. “But in the last year, I’ve noticed two key points of contention affecting the talent pool,” she said. “The first is the notion of ‘leftover women’ and the cultural stigma attached to women over 25 years old that are not married. Second, the millennial workforce holds different values and different definitions of success.”


In an article addressing this subject,which ran in the July/August issue of Campaign Asia-Pacific, it was learnt that the fear of focusing on career at the expense of family held women back in China, far more than workplace discrimination.  


The challenge then becomes focused on how agencies can not only attract and keep talent in the industry but also get them to want to stay in the field. Locke said that in her hunt for talent, she had found that creatives get a better deal as freelancers, rather than full-time staff.


“I met one female creative that told me a bad month for her was US$8,000 in pay,” she said. “I just can’t match that — few agencies can. But I feel that this is also a sign that women are empowering themselves.”


She added that companies should also recognise the entrepreneurial slant evident in many millennials as both a trait and opportunity for fruitful partnerships.


“The only way to keep good people in the system, is to be more flexible and just around work hours and support which is critical,” Locke said. “What I believe is when people are given the opportunity to work the way they want, you will get more of out them than what you pay for because they are motivated.”


In future, agencies in Asia, as in the US, could come to depend heavily on a roster of freelancers rather than full-time teams, where there’s flexibility to pursue opportunities.


Igniting change


TBWA’s Brett noted that the issues raised by the roundtable, and the proposed solutions required to affect change didn’t “sound impossible” which he took as a good sign that the industry is not entirely in “a bad place.”


Locke said that companies needed to allow themselves not just the will to change but the budgets to do so as well.


Facebook’s Cheng said that there was a real search and need for change, with the changing workforce; the agency’s pitch to talent needed to be rethought as a result.


“What’s the agency equivalent of that ‘joy’ that will allow women to feel that it’s worth staying in the industry?” said Cheng. “The industry has to find that.”


Suggestions from the group for actionable steps included an open forum for industry leaders to devise an action plan, and bringing the client-side into the conversation for better understanding of the situation to enable them to build it into their own plans moving forward.


“Real change, at the end of the day, is about changing the rules,” said Tuminez. “To survive, you change or you die; talent is going to go where they are supported and are able to live their lives the way they want to.”

Also read a special report on Millennial Mums from TBWA\India.

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