Women in Advertising: Breaking the glass ceiling

It is not a cakewalk for women. Success depends on finding the right balance between work and family, motherhood, gender perceptions. BestMediaInfo speaks to women in advertising who have made it to the top in what is generally perceived as a male-dominat

BestMediaInfo Bureau
New Update
Women in Advertising: Breaking the glass ceiling

Women in Advertising: Breaking the glass ceiling

It is not a cakewalk for women. Success depends on finding the right balance between work and family, motherhood, gender perceptions. BestMediaInfo speaks to women in advertising who have made it to the top in what is generally perceived as a male-dominated industry to learn about their experience

Roshni Nair | Mumbai | July 21, 2016


An acclaimed journalist recently had to apologise on national television after he made the unwitting gaffe of asking current world No. 1 in women's doubles and Indian tennis' golden girl Sania Mirza when she will 'settle down', have kids and become the model Indian woman, family, et al. While the feisty Mirza gave him a befitting repartee, one couldn't help but sigh at the universal mindset problem when it came to women. That, no matter what peaks women scale in their professional lives, they will always be judged by how neatly they keep their houses, how perfectly round they make the 'rotis' and how well they manage their family life.

Coming from a traditional Marwari family, for Nisha Singhania, Co-founder and Director, Infectious, choosing a profession itself was a bold decision, let alone a career in advertising where days bleed into nights and there is no set time or structure.

When Babita Baruah, Senior Vice-President and Head, PO1 Unit, J. Walter Thompson, announced that she would work in advertising, her mother mistook it for modelling! Baruah had to assure her mother that she would be the woman behind the camera and not the one in front of it.

Amomg others, Divya Radhakrishnan, MD, Helios Media, drifted into the profession, and Sudha Natrajan, former Lintas Initiative Media CEO and currently Head - Business Development at HT Media, switched from marketing to advertising when she shifted base from Mumbai to Chennai.

Tista Sen, National Creative Director and Senior Vice-President, J. Walter Thompson, on the other hand, always wanted to write. Her stint with White Light, a film production company, where she did anything and everything, made her realise her love for visual communication.

These are women who have been trailblazers in their chosen profession. BestMediaInfo caught up with them to find out how punishing or nurturing the world of advertising can be for women.

Is advertising a male dominated industry?

“I don't think it is a male-dominated industry at all. Women who held their own were serious about their career, were competent and professional, and succeeded. Women who had the ambition, grew,” said Natrajan.

Divya Radhakrishnan Divya Radhakrishnan

Radhakrishnan on the contrary feels advertising is a women-dominated industry. “When I was in my middle management phase, most heads of media were women – Roda Mehta, Lynn de Souza, Apurva Purohit, Meenakshi Menon, Divya Gupta and many others. Hence, it was a women-dominated industry on the contrary. I don't think this was by design but by default. The reverse situation now may be same but we do have Anupriya Acharya, Anita Nayyar, Nandini Dias leading many top ranked media agencies,” she said.

Babita Baruah Babita Baruah

Baruah believes in the dominance of a better work force that is not gender specific. She said, “The senior management has to see women at work as a productivity opportunity, as a way of getting diversity of work styles, thought and ideas. If this happens, there will be dominance of a better work force and not a gender divide. Organisations that do not see this have a negative ratio.”

Even with changing social dynamics, women still shoulder a majority of the responsibility of raising a family.

Ramanuj Shastry Ramanuj Shastry

Ramanuj Shastry, Co-Founder and Director, Infectious, believes expectations weigh down a woman's career ambitions. “We are a parochial, medieval society and it is just on the surface that we are very cool but in the heart of heart we are medieval in our thinking. Respect for women is very apparent. I am not surprised that a lot of them drop out. Even if women are talented and brilliant, they really don't have the social support to do what they want to do,” he added.

The motherhood factor

Nisha Singhania Nisha Singhania

Be that as it may, there are some problems with how the industry functions. Drawing attention to them, Singhania said, “What I have realised is that I had a lot of female colleagues when I started off but a lot of them dropped out. I think the phase when they do decide to drop out or they have to opt out is when they decide to have children. Given the unpredictability of the job and its dynamic nature, it is not easy for someone to balance both personal and professional lives. I think advertising should probably get more sensitive to motherhood.”

Sudha Natrajan Sudha Natrajan

Natrajan corroborates Singhania's view by sharing her own experience with motherhood and the importance of having a supportive family. “The only challenge I've had to face in my career as a woman was the beginning of motherhood. Fortunately, I was well settled in my career as I had my son a little later than normal Indian women do, and that made it easier. I also had a good support system in my family to help me take care of my son, which was my biggest boon.”

Tista Sen Tista Sen

Advertising is not a typical 9-5 job. There are often all-nighters and no one can say when a great idea will strike and, therefore, giving enough time to one's family is another hurdle that women have to overcome.

“Late hours and travel commitments are some of the other challenge areas. My child, like any other, loves time with me. There are times when she says, 'Mamma, sometime please forget the laptop at work.' But at the same time, she is extremely proud of me. I have learnt the art of balancing my child's craft with artwork. In my blog and my Facebook page on Gutsy Mums at Work, I share such experiences. All the speaker sessions and the guest lectures in management institutes, digital conventions, etc., which I am a part of means long hours of prep time. I balance that by sitting next to her and working while she is at her homework,” said Baruah.

Every problem has a solution

Ashish Bhasin Ashish Bhasin

There are problems, agreed, but every problem must have a solution and leading by example is Dentsu Aegis Network. Speaking about the DAN (Dentsu Aegis Network) Women's Council, Ashish Bhasin, Chairman and Chief Executive, Dentsu Aegis Network South Asia, said, “I think the industry has a problem. To address the issue at our agency level, we have formed the DAN Women's Council. The problem the way I see is that at the entry level there is a reasonable number of women but by the time you get to the senior level, the proportion tends to drop quite dramatically and to me that is a loss because that means almost half of your workforce is not able to contribute at the senior level, which is where they can add most value.”

Bhasin further said, “Therefore, what we did was to form the DAN Women's Council which was driven by senior women leaders. These are women who have at some point of time faced the challenge of managing their work life with their home life and have still achieved success and are at senior positions. The thinking was that they will be able to empathise as well as be good mentors to other women who can be inspired by them and their experiences. We have representatives from media agencies, creative agencies, digital agencies, ranging across functions, just to make sure that every aspect is represented.”

Dentsu Aegis Network also realised that in a deadline-driven industry like advertising, timing is an issue and therefore it allows flexible timings to all employees and not just women. Employees can choose from three different timings of arrival and departure.

Sharing her dream of changing conventions across the industry, Sen said, “In J. Walter Thompson where I work, we have a 60:40 ratio in the entire organisation. That said, I encourage my team to hire women first. Unfortunately, most often men are hired on potential, women on proof. This is something I want to change across divisions, across teams, across industry.”

Is there any gender pay gap?

One often hears of gender pay gap and how men are paid more compared to women for the same job. Is this true for the advertising industry? The general consensus is no.

“Appraisal sheets are not designed in 'pink' and 'blue' colours. Why would there be a wage gap? It clearly is a function of what you are qualified for and what you have delivered in the role assigned to you,” averred Radhakrishnan.

Women have to deal with a 'second shift'

Shedding light on the 'second shift' that women work, Baruah pointed out that her former colleague Swati Bhattacharya, ex-NCD at JWT and currently Chief Creative Officer at FCB Ulka, once wrote: 'Women have a second shift'. As Baruah explained, “Going home does not give us the licence to put our feet up. We have a job list and expectations on that front as well. My child runs to me for help. My help at home calls me when she runs out of potatoes. It is not like our partners and spouses don't help. It is the social conditioning.”

Women in advertisingNatrajan affirms that there is a skew when it comes to sharing responsibilities. “It is a little more difficult for women than men to balance personal and professional lives as Indian men of my generation are still not as house-friendly as one would like them to be. A lot of responsibilities are singularly shouldered by women.”

Explaining how often personal and professional lines have blurred for her, Sen said, “I have brought up my boys while working and taken them to office if it was a holiday. I have done meetings at home because I couldn't leave, and yes, even taken a break during a meeting to hurtle across the city and make it for a football match where my son was the captain! And that doesn't make me mom of the year but it is what millions of working women do every day, everywhere. Is it tougher on us? Yes, it is. But do we do an awesome job of it? A resounding yes.”

But despite all the roadblocks, women are still powering through.

“When you conduct yourself as a first-rated professional, the gender you belong to becomes immaterial. If you are standing in front of a client making a strong strategy presentation, what matters is the content of what is being said rather than whether the person presenting it is in a suit or a skirt. Yes, there are many biases among people who will write off achievements by saying 'she made it because someone had a glad eye for her' but such comments are short-lived if you let your work speak for itself, which is what I did. I never ever asked for special concessions for working late or on travel because I am a woman. I did my tasks with utmost honesty and sincerity which fetched me my rewards and helped me grow into a leadership position,” said Radhakrishnan.

The final word

“We are wired different and yes we have babies. We fall in love and out of love; yes, we cry. Yes, we are emotional. We get mad and moody. The only difference is it's out there. We don't pretend and we don't fake. And if flexing muscle is the sole criteria, we are glad to be excluded. Thank you very much,” said Sen.

Thank you, Tista (my Editor will kill me for using first name!). You couldn't have said it better – for all successful women in advertising and elsewhere.

Women in Advertising