The time is ripe for change in Asia. Conversations around gender equality in the workplace are more robust and dynamic than ever before, partly thanks to the #MeToo movement that has touched many industries including media, marketing and advertising. However, women in Asia can still be bound by behavioural and cultural demands that dictate the gender-based challenges they face, which can lead to a shortage of women in leadership roles.
Can women truly have it all? Perhaps, but the answer depends on organisational and industry-wide support for parents, and the continuous nurturing of mothers into leadership positions. According to women we interviewed, scepticism around the ability of mothers to perform in the workplace is still alive and well in Asia. This distrust, paired with poor organisational structures, leads to the epidemic that has been described as the "mid-career dropout".
The phenomenon of the 'mid-career dropout'
In the communications industry, for instance, the workforce is overwhelmingly made up of women (in a ratio of approximately 70:30), but this ratio mainly applies to women in entry-level or mid-tier roles. "When you get up to narrower tiers and senior leadership, the number of women start to taper off and you almost have a reversal where you have 70:30 male to female. Or, in some cases, 90:10 or 100:0," Lauren Myers-Cavanagh, director of marketing and special projects at Edelman in Singapore, says.
"There’s obviously more nuance in summarising why women drop out in leadership positions, but when you think about agency life, the client model is not always accommodating to working parents. And when you look at a lot of stats and the age at which people are leaving the workforce, it does correlate to young parenthood."
Athena Bughao, senior media activation director, search and biddable platforms, Asia-Pacific, at Essence, one of the 40 women who made Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch list in 2018, says that for women who take on full-time care roles for children or for ageing parents, going back into the workforce takes several extra steps and time: "They need to reconstruct dated contact networks, dust off old skills and adapt new ones, and catch up with technologies and tools.
"This takes a toll on a woman’s confidence, not to mention her chances with competing as an older version of herself. Taking a break, despite being invaluable to developing the family as a unit, may often reduce the opportunity for women to move forward in their careers."
Cultural and societal obligations also abound for women with kids in Asia. Having grown up in the Philippines, Bughao says a common perception is that "the highest level of service for women is in the interest of others. When you’ve sacrificed your career and your personal ambitions for your family’s bright future, you’ve given your best effort as a mother – which in that culture is the highest calling as a woman."
In the workplace, managers can adopt policies to ensure that women with kids feel supported, even after long spells of parental leave. Laura Cibilich, founder and director of the agency Run in Auckland, New Zealand, and also a 2018 Woman to Watch, said that agencies need to get more creative in their employment thinking: "It’s not just about the flexible hours. Maybe daycare if you’ve got a big office, school holiday programmes where parents can bring their kids in during the holidays, and perhaps shorter working weeks.
"Another thing I saw recently was giving parents the ability to buy back 14 weeks of school holidays a year. So say you’re on a salary of 52,000 a year or 1,000 a week, you could buy back up to 14 weeks at the price of 1,000 a week."
Meanwhile, Amrita Randhawa, chief executive for Asia-Pacific at Mindshare, says that she is fed up of the stereotypes around mothers and their effectiveness at work. Randhawa is based in China where the number of female leaders is higher compared with many markets in Asia, something she attributes to the pragmatic and young nature of its economy. However, challenges there are very much based around cultural nuances, especially when it comes to balancing parenthood and work.
"What I’ve seen – having a child myself and managing a number of women who have kids – is that being a mother makes you a better manager," she says. "As a parent, you have to be organised. I’ve seen new mums whose organisational skills are a whole new level because they are juggling multiple things. These are women who are concerned about getting home in time, so you see with them work with a level of efficiency that’s exceptional. They are always on time, always on top of stuff."
On the other hand, stereotypes around single women or those without kids also exist, something that Randhawa slams: "Just because a woman is single, or doesn’t have kids, people think she’s overly obsessed by her career and therefore unnecessarily aggressive or assertive. And that really annoys me. It’s a mirror to the first stereotype."
From gender parities to equitable wages
Myers-Cavanagh says that while legislation has recently been put in place to address the UK’s gender pay gaps, such a move is not yet on the horizon for Asia: "The gender pay gap is a crude measurement that looks at the wage gap between men and women in median pay and pay quartiles across organisations. What happened in the UK caused a chain effect where companies revealed their pay gaps and it stayed in the newspapers for weeks. Without a forcing function like that, it’s hard to imagine voluntarily moving the needle on some of the discrepancies."
In the US, meanwhile, sites such as PayScale and Glassdoor shine a light on organisations in terms of compensation, parental leave and more.
"A lot of these dotcoms are from the US, and they will take time to travel around the world. But it can also be that the desire is not there yet [in Asia]. I still get a sense that the equality mandate is not necessarily being pursued at the leadership level yet," she adds.
In the absence of legislation in Asia, Myers-Cavanagh is hopeful about decisions being made at an industry level by bodies such as the Public Relations and Communications Association to voluntarily mandate changes. A chorus of voices within the industry is also important so that leaders will feel compelled to drive change in their organisations.
"On the softer side of things, it’s values-driven. I think that you’ll start to see that the organisations that don’t follow these models will start to bleed talent in a few years," she says. "You need leaders who are proactively making it part of their day job to show how important this is."
Sorcha John, managing director of Iris Singapore and another of the 40 Women to Watch, took it upon herself to implement a salary benchmark in her company to make the process more objective.
"I was aware that some people find it harder to have conversations around pay. Generally, that manifests more frequently in women," she says. "[At Iris], we implemented various pay benchmarks whereby for every role and level, we say ‘this is the entry, this is the middle and this is the top of that pay band’. And nobody can get paid variations of that band."
This, she hopes, erases the power of the negotiator and takes the emotion out of the process, making employees confident that everybody in the same level or role, male or female, is paid the same.
Where are all the men?
Since #MeToo blew up in the West in late 2017, the consciousness, fearlessness and rage that were entangled in the movement has also begun to trickle into Asia. Even in patriarchal business cultures where women haven’t been encouraged to speak up, we’ve seen reports of harassment and assault being called out and senior male executives taking the fall.
In India, for instance, after decades of repression, an outpouring of public reports has occurred in the past 12 months, forcing agencies including Creativeland Asia, DDB Mudra Group, Dentsu Webchutney and iProspect to issue statements to address accusations and backlash.
But if women’s rights are human rights, why is the fight for gender equity in Asia largely dominated by women? Women Leading Change, for example, Campaign Asia-Pacific’s annual conference that covers challenges and solutions around gender equity in the industry, saw a decline in male attendance this year despite Campaign’s best efforts in marketing the event to all genders. It’s just one instance that appears to prove many men in the region aren’t on board with equality efforts.
"You can say that you’ve gone to one conference and understood the issues, but that doesn’t mean that the message has sunk in to the point at which it becomes a part of your behaviour. We need constant exposure to the problem and constant discussion of the solutions," Randhawa says.
She adds that leaders should make the time to send both their male and female managers to forums and training sessions, as well as set KPIs around their initiatives.
On the topic of men, we can’t ignore the uncomfortable fact that resistance, ignorance and fear have become by-products of the #MeToo movement. "With the backdrop of #MeToo and all the politicisation around the male-female debate, three-quarters of men are afraid of saying the wrong thing or sticking their necks out, showing that what they may fear is ignorance and being called out for it," Myers-Cavanagh says.
Recent stats from LeanIn.org show that 60% of male managers say they are uncomfortable mentoring, socialising with or working alone with women in the workplace, up from 46% a year ago. Myers-Cavanagh says that the solution to this fear shouldn’t be for men to disengage, as this has a consequential effect on women and the mentorship they receive from their managers.
"The ‘best not to go there’ approach is probably having a bigger impact on women than we can quantify at this time," she says. "I think again that it comes back to leaders. If you have leaders who go out of their way to visibly demonstrate their participation in these conversations and debates, it will pave the path for answers. But to disengage is definitely not the right answer."
Randhawa concurs: "To not engage a female employee because of your discomfort is a cop-out. Gender or cultural context is not an excuse to disengage."
As Roman historian Livy said, we fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them. And if managers of all genders can begin to recalibrate their behaviours by listening and learning with empathy, the institutional challenges of female leadership in Asia might become less elusive.
Campaign Asia-Pacific's Women to Watch 2019
Marita Abraham, chief marketing officer, Zilingo
Lina Ang, general manager, Asia-Pacific, Sojern
Rowena Bhagchandani, chief executive and co-founder, BLK J
Swati Bhattacharya, chief creative officer, FCB India
Basti Chendra, creative director, Wunderman Thompson Jakarta
Geraldine Cheung, managing director, L'Atelier China
Pavarisa Chumvigrant, chief marketing officer, Line Mobile
Penelope Guerineau, executive creative director, Asia, AUDITOIRE China
Jessica Haigh, managing director, Cedar Hong Kong
Airy Han, creative partner, BBDO China
Dew Intapunya, chief content officer, IPG Mediabrands; chief executive, Ensemble Thailand
Lani Jamieson, head, Cadreon Singapore
Maheen Jatoi, head of brand, creative and research for Asia-Pacific, Uber
Roshenka Jayamaha, founder and proprietor, Spark Marcom, Sri Lanka
Sorcha John, managing director, Iris Singapore
Geraldine Kan, head of communications, HP
Laura Kantor, head of marketing and sustainability, Foodpanda Singapore
Maddison Keogh, client advice and management director, Initiative Australia
Ruey Ku, managing director, Publicis Media Content China
Janet Kwan, senior trading specialist, The Trade Desk
Kitty Lee, deputy general manager, FleishmanHillard Hong Kong
Amy Li, general manager, Mindshare Shanghai
Yuhong Li, chief executive and founder, Ylab
Dephin Lim, managing director, MediaCom Shanghai
Shivani Maharaj, national head of content and partnerships, Wavemaker Australia
Haruna McWilliams, senior vice-president, strategy, Asia-Pacific, Essence
Neha Mehrotra, executive vice-president, client centricity, Avian
Norzilawati (Wati) MohdTaib, business director, consumer and expert communications, McCann Health Singapore
Taryn Mook, group chief operating officer, Bonsey Jaden
Belinda Murray, managing director, BWM Dentsu Melbourne
Anna Patterson, vice-president and managing director, George P Johnson Singapore
Katie Potter, business director, Asia-Pacific, Teads Singapore
Kartikha Rajoo, associate director, programmatic, Omnicom Media Group Indonesia
Laura Roberts, managing director, INVNT
Priyadarshini Sharma, marketing director, Carlsberg China
To Quy Loc (Sue), head of operation and senior PR director, Havas Vietnam
Olivia Warren, head of studio, Initiative Australia
Kara Yang, managing director, TBWA\Media Arts Lab Shanghai
Amber Zhang, co-founder and chief operating officer, Fugetech