Why the marketing industry needs more female leaders

Standfirst: Nearly 70% of entry level recruits in the marketing, PR and advertising industries are women. But APAC regional heads of the top five PR agencies are all men. Why? Edelman’s Cornelia Kunze finds out.

Every year, millions of young women leave Asia’s first-class business schools and universities to enter the job market. When it comes to education in both emerging and developed markets, there is almost no gender gap, apart from perhaps a few typically male-dominated subjects such as engineering.

In our profession – marketing, public relations and advertising – we face a large imbalance that favours females in entry level positions. About 70% of our entry level new recruits are women, in both this part of the world and elsewhere. We should have a considerable advantage and opportunity to have equally high female representation at the top. And we could content ourselves with much better quotas than other sectors: 50% of our middle-management and 25% of our senior management are women.

However, the APAC regional heads of the top five PR agencies are all men. What happens to the many job starters who do not make it through to the senior-management level? How does the change take place in the talent pool from junior to senior level? What can we as business leaders do to retain and promote them? It’s a rocky road towards increasing the percentage of women in leadership in Asia Pacific. But ignoring this path is not an option.

When coming to Asia as a female senior executive born and bred in a thoroughly Western culture, my understanding of the gender equality topic was primarily fuelled from reading about diversity in newspapers and discussing the merits of a gender quota over dinner conversations.

The operation I came from in Germany had 70% female employees and more than 50% in senior leadership were women. We had flexible working hours and part-time work was a perfectly acceptable option. And I was the female executive at the top – so no reason to worry. Or so I thought – my bad. Diversity, and especially gender diversity, is often just classified as a moral requirement rather than a business imperative. An active change to promote gender diversity is not supposed to marry easily with the primacy of meritocracy.

It might have been Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, that shook up the female corporate world and made the topic the talk of the town and the boardroom. Translated into numerous languages, business people all over the world are waking up to a new topic of conversation. While most big multinationals have representatives and programmes for “diversity and inclusion” in place, the effectiveness of those programmes is often compromised by the realities – by deeply rooted traditions, perceptions and current behaviours seemingly set in stone.

When I accepted the role of a steering committee member of Edelman’s GWEN (global women executive network) I wanted to find out what made the Asia Pacific region different. What barriers are we facing as we search for solutions to meet our firm’s global goal for 50% female leadership, set by Richard Edelman himself.

Overall, there is a serious gender gap in most parts of Asia Pacific, which means that women are underrepresented in the labour force, political decision-making, access to health and education. According to the World Economic Forum Gender Report 2013 which ranks 136 countries, India (101), Japan (105) and South Korea (111) rank among the lowest in this region. The Philippines (fifth) is one bright spot, not only leading the way in Asia Pacific, but also leaving behind Britain, the US and France.

There is no lack of research: most studies have found that few women are in leading positions, apart from some encouraging examples and figures in China, Vietnam and the Philippines. The proportion of women in the workforce decreases at each successive level of the hierarchy.

According to a report, Japanese women make up 49% of university graduates and 45% of entry level jobs – but less than 1% of CEO positions. Almost half of women employees leave their jobs voluntarily because of family commitments, mid-career or at senior levels. In South Korea a very small proportion of women move into middle management, and in India only about 30% of educated women even work in junior-level positions.

The Singapore Board Diversity report 2013 states that less than 5% of chairman and CEO positions are held by women – while 58% of listed companies have all-male boards. When it comes to our industry, there are not a lot of specific facts available, except for Australia. And they are not encouraging: according to new figures from Graduate Careers Australia, the public relations industry holds the dubious honour of having the highest gender wage disparity of any industry: “Women represent just a quarter of staff in creative departments” (in Australia) according to The Communications Council’s latest Salary Survey, with just 13.5% of senior creative positions occupied by females.

The general trend is not a lot more encouraging in Europe, however, it is more acute in Asia. With generally lower proportions of women in the labour force, it becomes more difficult to feed the pipeline of leaders in Asia. Companies are recommended to address the cultural and organisational issues to crack the gender gap, while not being equipped to solve them.

The primary role of women as wives, mothers and caretakers is deeply ingrained in cultures. Whereas women in China carry the burden of taking care of the elderly, the influence of traditional families in India includes but doesn’t stop at the choice of a husband. The choice of the future employer, the pace of the career, the intensity of working hours, the daily commute, the required work-related travel – all of this can be subject to family decisions and put the female employee between a rock and a hard place.

The commonly discussed glass ceiling effect is not only a result of family pressure or a deliberate choice to move into a slower lane with her career. Even though it is denied by some female executives who have made it to the top, the old boys’ network is alive and kicking, hand-in-hand with a solid bureaucracy.

The Economist has created its own glass-ceiling index[1], according to which, the places “not to be” for a woman are South Korea and Japan. When it comes to moving up the career ladder, the traditional gender role doesn’t sync with the image of a career woman – defined by everybody else except the women themselves.

The current reality of wage gaps is not helpful, either. There is a global consensus that 35% think that women earn less than men in the same job profile.

Societal change is slowly under way. In most countries, women are increasingly educated, marry later and have fewer children. This goes hand-in-hand with their own aspiration to pursue an adequate career and offer themselves to the job market, under conditions that allow them to “have it all” – family and career.

Back to advertising, public relations and creative agencies specifically: young graduates joining our agencies are most likely urban, career-oriented, want to be part of an exciting, global and ever-changing sector and are primarily female. Are they less affected by the cultural context they live in? No – they are part of it as much as anyone else in the world.

We as employers have to acknowledge that as much as diversity fuels innovation and great business performance, it requires our acceptance of our people’s needs and wants. And it requires flexibility to make it work for everybody. Our firm has decided to set up a specific programme towards more female representation in senior leadership.

I love to be a part of making this happen in the Asia context and I meet many women and men who do the same in their businesses.

We also need to share responsibility with our clients. The large majority of our senior communications clients in Southeast Asia on the PR side, for example, are female. In order for this to be reflected in agencies, clients need to agree that it is manageable to have shared job roles and flexible work hours for client-facing agency staff.

In Australia, we are beginning to see major clients add gender diversity policies as a procurement requirement in contract negotiations with suppliers. A “male champions of change programme” by the communications sector was set up and members have already agreed and signed up to this pledge.

What everybody can do is very specific: more flexible HR policies, maternity and paternity leave, working from home, flexible working hours and child care facilities – these have proven successful and are on the rise. This is in addition to role models, mentoring and a clear-cut career path for women. Companies, in which male senior executives – like ours – champion and truly support change can lead the way.

[1] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/03/daily-chart-3

The writer is Cornelia Kunze, vice-chair of Edelman Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.