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The gender divide

Why do so few women manage to make it into senior positions within agencies, despite the majority of advertising being directed at females?

There is a scene in the film What Women Want where Mel Gibson tries to wax his legs in an attempt to try and understand, err, what women want. It is one of those eternal advertising questions. What drives women to purchase one brand and not another, or to blow hot and cold?

As equally important, however, is the question of why most adverts are aimed at women, and yet very few females are in senior agency positions or are involved in boardroom decisions.

While advertising about, for, or involving women is rapidly gaining ground, there are women in advertising who aren’t gathering pace nearly as quickly. Why?

“There is an interesting quote from 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding that states ‘The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head anyway she wants’,” says Tina Srouji, a junior copywriter at JWT Beirut. “With their purchasing power and control of a family’s wealth, it doesn’t take much thought to see why most advertising is targeted at women.

“Yet it is sad – and as a woman slightly dispiriting – to see that so little of us make it to senior positions or board associations. Women have taken quotes and ideals, like the one already mentioned, as a defining identity. We’ve limited ourselves to these definitions and don’t rise above them. Rather only rising to find our heads banging on some invisible glass ceiling. It’s scary to be something other than what everyone told you to be.

“But this won’t always be the case. Women are starting to break free from their own idea of what defines them. I’m proud to be part of an agency that hired the first female
creative director back in 1908 and continues enabling women today. This kind of support gives rise to a new demographic, the liberated power woman who ‘rises from self-denial to self-esteem’.  Let’s highlight liberated here, not from men, from her own understanding as to what a woman can or cannot be. Only when she shatters these misconceptions will she be able to shatter that glass ceiling.”

Noha Wagih, regional head of social media at Impact Proximity, believes women should take the lead in wielding the power of advertising, instead of living up to gender stereotypes. “The gender complex is what men and women alike fall into. I would love to blame it on the men but I will hold my fellow gender mates responsible.

“We hold back, confined by the subconscious and sometimes conscious labelling of ourselves, as a result of seeds planted by society since we were little girls in pink skirts chosen by our parents.

“It’s not only an eastern predicament; it still applies in the most advanced of countries. But specifically in our region, we still have a long way to go  to get out of our self-inflicted gender labelling.

“Another reason is men’s labeling and expectations. But why should women conform to what the society and specifically men in the workplace ‘expect’ of them? Personally, I find great pleasure in ‘surprising’ the men in the meeting room with firm opinions, not holding back and challenging so called facts. I mentally force them to look beyond the big hair, feminine dresses and heels. You can be a successful woman without compromising the essence of your gender. And I think that is a big issue that holds back many potentially successful women in our region.

“Instead of fearing rejection, and failing to meet expectation, embrace the power you can feel when you shock someone into respect, embrace the ecstasy of altering a man’s opinion of you in one meeting.

“The endless internal battle of compromising a personal life for a successful career is always on our minds, and that hinders our daily decisions.

“For example, many women I meet complain about how little time they have in the morning to take care of how they look because they worked late the night before and have early meetings. And how that directly affects their possibilities of finding a partner. I reply to them with only one thing, your goal is to climb through the career jungle gym, and achieve great success.

“If you find your ‘one’ along the way, that is wonderful, but make sure they support you in your goal. But you have to schedule it in. If you want time for yourself and to ‘mingle’ you must treat it as a client request. And this client is your lifeline, you. And if you don’t find one until you reach your goals, well, in higher positions you will meet better matches to your level of intelligence and similar life goals.  It may not be exactly relevant to their question but it always makes my smart gals re-think a thing or two.”

But are all women using the gender stereotype as an excuse? And if not, what is standing in the way of talented women progressing?

Racha Makarem, head of research at Starcom Mediavest Group, says the challenge for women is making tough choices on maintaining the right balance between work, family and life.

“There are several reasons why there are fewer women in senior positions in our industry, but I think the main one is women choosing to drop out at a point in their careers. For career-oriented women on the path to climbing the corporate ladder, this may be a very difficult decision to make.  However, this decision is one that many make, especially when they start a family, choosing to become caregivers or in some cases to venture out on their own; usually in areas related to their passion and interests; in favour of more flexibility and balance between work, family and life.

“The reality is flexibility and the right balance are not unique needs to women. Many companies today debate what is the right approach and balance that will ensure all – men and women – remain motivated, productive and creative at work. The fact that we live in an age of mobility and connectivity has really blurred the lines between physical and virtual presence, which I think works in favour of women who seek flexibility and balance. But here is what is unique to women:  they are fantastic at multitasking and have the ability to multi-prioritise.

“For some women in senior positions, or those who aspire to being in one, growing in their career is perhaps the easier route and choice to make because it comes more naturally to them; it’s in their DNA. I am not suggesting that this does not require effort as it certainly does – it means that time and efficiency have a higher currency.

“The question then becomes how much do women really want to be at the top.”

Hana Khatib, managing director at Mindshare Lebanon, argues that we can’t paint all agencies – advertising and media – with the same brush. Not all appoint a majority of men to senior positions.

“Forums and seminars are still organised around the globe preaching about the fact that having women on board is not just the ‘right’ thing, but the ‘bright’ thing,” she says.

“In McKinsey & Company’s Women Matter research campaign, they highlighted that stronger stock market growth is more likely to happen where there is a higher proportion of women on senior management teams. Another piece of research entitled The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards indicated that businesses with a greater proportion of women on their boards outpaced their competitors in terms of returns on invested capital (by 66 per cent), returns on equity (by 53 per cent), and sales (by 42 per cent).

“Statistics have shown for decades that companies and business owners participated in preferential hiring practices, making paid employment a male privilege, and thus making it harder for women to progress and reach the top positions. Women had to work harder and longer than men to prove that they were committed and career-oriented. They had to aggressively exploit opportunities made available for them to prove their competence. That being said, I do believe that the blame is on our own kind. We have been very resourceful finding reasons for us not to make it to the front lines: cultural motivations, social barriers, along with childbearing and child-rearing among our preferred excuses.

“My own observation is that women are progressing at a faster pace in the ad industry compared with other industries. Taking the example of Mindshare MENA, ladies currently represent 30 per cent of the top management, a percentage that is higher than the global and the European average. Ad business leaders are aware of the fact that an imbalance in the boardroom can be detrimental to their business growth and thus have begun attending to it. Men or women, you need to have the right attitude and determination to make it to the top – so stop blaming it on
the gender.”