Ex-AirAsia marketer Kathleen Tan shares her personal challenges as a female boss

While there have been a wave of female leaders breaking the glass ceiling, women still face challenges in the workplace and those in leadership positions are often seen as aggressive or difficult. In 2018, Malaysia was ranked the sixth lowest in East Asia and the Pacific by the World Economic Forum in its Global Gender Report 2018, which measures countries on their progress towards gender parity.

The country had a score of 0.676 out of 1.0 and was ranked 101th globally. Meanwhile, Singapore came in 67th with a score of 0.707, while Indonesia was ranked 85th with a score of 0.691. In line with International Women’s Day, A+M speaks to female leaders in the industry about their views on being a female boss and the challenges that come with it.

Kicking off the series is marketing veteran Kathleen Tan (pictured), former AirAsia president of China who also previously helmed regional roles at Warner Music and FJ Benjamin. Tan shares her journey about being a female boss and the biggest challenges women on top in the advertising and marketing world face today.

A+M: What has been the toughest thing about being a female boss?

Tan: In my corporate journey, I have never put a lot of focus on my gender but rather on what I can contribute, and leverage on my ability to make a difference in whatever I do in my position as a professional and to do my best. However, there are some moments where I have to deal with male staff who let me or themselves down when it came to performance, and the toughest times for me is to see a man break down in front of me. Such moments strike the raw nerves of my gender and breaks my heart to see a man, who is traditionally seen as “macho”, cry.

I worked in one of toughest industries – aviation – which is highly male-dominated who view women differently, and they see senior management roles more suited for qualified men than women. My toughest challenge is to combat prejudices in my early days as someone who came from an entertainment background and knew nothing about the aviation industry while also being a woman. I had to constantly deal with government regulators, especially in China. Many possess traditional views and dealing with foreign woman like me shocked their system.

Instead of being daunted, I chose to view my role as a ‘novelty’ and took on the challenge to win and influence them with wit, charm and smartness.

A+M: Staff members aren’t always the kindest to opinionated female leaders, how do you deal with this?

Tan: I get this a lot and I either ignored them or squared with them. If things get out of control, confrontation is best way to handle them. Generally, people are still not used to seeing women speaking up or calling the shots as corporate boardrooms are still dominated by men. It takes courage, honesty to confront the issue and deal with it in a professional manner. After we became friends, I have had male leaders confess that they too get intimidated with strong women and are sometimes unsure of how to handle them, as well as what to wear when they had to meet me for the first time and what my expectations were.

A+M: What are some of the biggest challenges women on top in the ad/marketing world face?

Tan: Prejudices, discrimination and sometimes sexual harassment as women are viewed as the “the weaker sex” in the corporate world. However, to address and improve this, women must step up, be aware of our rights and not be afraid to call them out. Just focus on your competence and confidence to deliver results. The way we carry ourselves is also important so as to not send wrong signals.

The ability to deliver results and be professional will silence critics.

A+M: What was the toughest thing about getting to the top?

Tan: As women contributors, we should not focus too much on our gender and if we want to be taken seriously, we should not expect to be treated differently but rather focus on our ability to deliver, work smart and not just work hard. While women have attributes that some may see as weakness, focus on turning them into advantages.  This has worked so well for me in a male dominated industry where I spent many years.

My respect goes to women who can strike a good balance, to have a career, be a wife and mother. The key is to also build a strong support system whether it is in the workplace or at home. Having a strong mental resilience is essential.

For women who are ambitious, build advocates with your male colleagues to win and influence them. Honest engagement with HR and management also helps.

A+M: Is sexism and harassment in the ad/marketing industry an issue in Southeast Asia markets? 

Tan: I believe it’s not just in Southeast Asia but an issue that is getting more attention and awareness by regulators especially through social media.

A+M: Do you see tides changing locally since the emergence of the #MeToo movement?   

Tan: It will take time but Asia is still behind and I believe with the Millennial generation, the issue may be lessened as their values are very different from the colonial era.

Read also:
Listen to consumers rather than ‘boss people around via email’, says Kathleen Tan
Kathleen Tan to step down as AirAsia China president
APAC audiences say advertising still pandering to gender stereotypes

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