Reema, an advertising and media journalist, enters an office for an interview with the board of directors. It is a typical media organization abuzz with robust enthusiasm from a strong work force of both male and female employees. Proceeding to the boardroom, she is amazed at finding most of the cabins occupied by men, as - when she reaches her destination - is each seat in the boardroom.
Advertising agencies seem to be afflicted by the same malady. Media agencies, however, bucked this trend. Names like Roda Mehta, Ambika Srivastava, Lynn de Souza, Nandini Dias, Shubha George, Mona Jain, Punitha Arumugam, Anupriya Acharya and Divya Gupta have graced the hot seat in various media agencies. However, Indian advertising, barring the odd agency, is not known for having women at the helm. Is there a reason?
When media planning and buying functions split from an ad agency, those women who were a part of the function shifted to the media side," explains Colvyn Harris, CEO, JWT South Asia. Many of them climbed their way to the top.
But what exactly is top management? Human resource consultants and service providers define top management executives as those who have the powers and manpower - or womanpower - to shape the course of their organization and employees. It comprises heads across all functions; like finance, HR, operations, marketing.
By that definition, ad agencies have something to show - there are creative and strategy functions headed by women. The roll call includes Malvika Mehra, Teesta Sen, Swati Bhattacharya and Bindu Sethi. That may sound dangerously condescending but it is sad that the top seat eludes women. Monica Tata, former general manager - entertainment networks at Turner International, India and South Asia is more emphatic. "It is appalling," she fumes.
Matter of choice
Many say women opt out after a certain level because they have the choice to do so. "Women can choose to do different things in their lives. But the poor guy has to continue working to manage finances for his family," iterates Sunil Lulla managing director and CEO Times Global Broadcasting & Zoom Entertainment Networks.
Ogilvy headman Piyush Pandey has a different example that is closer home. "My wife - in spite of reaching a certain level - chose to opt out to pursue art." Pandey's wife Nita was vice president, client servicing at Ogilvy, a few years ago.
Neeraja Kale, former COO of Percept/H, feels that it has something to do with not enjoying the job on hand after a while. Says she, "You rarely get an opportunity to think brands and take it to a particular stature." For women, it is about fulfillment and being at the helm takes away the thrill of handling a brand and giving it direction. Some feel that the media business is not a fixed-office-hours business. And the family too needs attention. Priti Nair, co-founder, Curry-Nation, confesses that, given a choice she would have stayed back at home if she had children to manage.
For many, motherhood slows down the ride to the top. Or takes them out of the race altogether. Vanita Keswani, COO, Madison Media, Sigma has an interesting anecdote to share.
She took only a four-month break when her daughter Aashna was born. "We don't have extended family in Mumbai. I still recall how I used to go home in the evening and return to office with my young daughter when my husband was travelling for shoots."
While Keswani took her child to work, Swati Bhattacharya, national creative director, JWT India chose to fly with her baby wherever she went. Bhattacharya states how motherhood is a stage in a woman's life where she wants an organization to be an ally and her agency JWT was like a rock.
Of flamboyance and boys' clubs
Are men more comfortable with women colleagues who don't play up the gender issue? Explains Santha John, managing director, JWT Mindset, "In media there is a little bit of 'old school boy's club', which is easy to break into," she points out both at work and outside of it.
John explains how she would advise every new girl joining this field to learn as much as she can about cricket, in order to be able to strike a connect with the men around. Flamboyance is something that is associated with those in this business. John made it her business to be "high-profile". Networking and self-promotion at parties is another step in the ladder that senior-level women miss. Sandeep Khosla, CEO, Network18 Publishing points out that many parties (the media business is known for its parties) have men from all levels, but hardly any top woman manager. "This has probably to do with the fact that a woman has got a house to run and other duties to manage. Their networking stops there," he says.
Rakhshin Patel, director, M&C Saatchi, Direct and Digital Communications opines that, in a field like this, one needs a lot of self-promotion in the media. That doesn't happen. Men, because of the extra time they have, are seen more often in the media - both social and traditional.
Tata feels that many women avoid being aggressive as it could be misconstrued in the male-dominated industry. "There is always a feeling at the back of your mind that you have to be a little more demure. Forward or outgoing could be taken in the wrong way. But these are preconceived notions that many women have. And it is difficult to break," she adds.
Ajay Shah, practice head, sourcing, TeamLease Services, an HR consultancy, points out to the peculiarities of media setups to explain how it is different from other industries. It is a more casual set up and one, therefore, has to be a little pushy. "You do not see someone walking into a director's cabin like in a media set-up. The media industry, being a service industry and more dynamic, calls for urgency and skewed timelines," says Shah.
The social system in India isn't conducive enough to help women stick to careers, especially when it comes to support systems. Citing the example of the Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, who was back to work a few days after giving birth to a baby, Bhaskar Das, group CEO, ZEE News elucidates how this can never happen in India. "There is no such thing as a reliable place to keep the child. And taking a six-month maternity leave is not possible for the head of an organization."
Also, even today women are considered the secondary bread earners. Shah states how one sees a lot of women leaving their careers mid-way, because, by the time they are about to start a family, the husband's income becomes more stable. According to Lulla, one of the challenges is that senior management positions open up only in the late '30s or early '40s. Many women do not want to stay in the management structure of the organization till that time.
Gender diversity in the senior management is not only important for women but also benefits organizations. It leads to increased availability of skilled employees, stronger employee engagement and higher productivity.
E Balaji of MaFoi Randstad, an HR consultancy, feels that a fundamental reason for women not reaching the top would be lack of women-friendly HR policies, leading to a reduced talent pool. "These policies should help women find proper work-life balance, as many women take break for family reasons," he says.
Flexible working hours or working from home come up as offerings. "But this is still considered a compromise. A CEO can't be absent continuously for half a month," says Shah. Some companies, in their quest to maintain a fair man-woman ratio in the workforce, tell HR agencies that they can pay one-and-a-half times of what they pay for a man - if the service provider is successful in placing a woman at the vacant post. Piyush Pandey despises such special treatment. "We do not nurture men or women. We nurture our colleagues. If I am giving them special treatment, I feel I am insulting women," he says.
If you are looking for truly equal opportunity employers among ad agencies, you may not need to look beyond JWT. Colvyn Harris, chief executive officer, JWT South Asia, is a great believer in that policy. Harris feels that succession or career development is dependent on an individual. If somebody is good and has the right skill, she/he will go to the top, provided the company backs her - or him - fully.
In JWT India, 42 per cent of the top management is female. Thirty per cent of this are AVP and above. It is not just about hiring women. Harris also mentions how JWT has been sensitive towards them and their needs. ''If they have taken an extended maternity leave, we are okay with that because the person is good and committed to the organization. It so happens that when they come back full time, they are more committed to the organization.'' It is these little touches that makes employee-employer relationships last. It also means that JWT cares for its women.
Swati Bhattacharya, national creative director, bears out this statement. ''I have taken a really long maternity leave, but when I returned, I was never faced with a 'Oh, you were not there' kind of reaction.'' That goes to prove that it is not merely a management policy - even the regular staff at JWT understands.
There is a general perception that women slip into roles that are considered as softer or easier to handle. Balaji, for one, feels that though roles should be gender neutral as far as possible, a person should pursue a career in her line of interest rather than deciding one based on gender.
According to him, in the media industry, there are women in various levels and functions, but their roles are more prominent in functions such as HR, client servicing, marketing and communication. De Souza, former chairman and CEO, Lintas Media Group, opines that women do well in softer areas such as HR. "But," she points out, "in the media and entertainment space, the women at the top are usually daughters, sisters or wives of owners."
Divya Radhakrishnan, managing director, Helios Media has another reason. "When I chose to be in this profession, many advised me against it saying how I should be in client servicing as it was more glamorous," she says. Media planning was considered a backroom function.
"But when media planning and buying split from the creative agency and grew to the level it is today, it was left with only women with a lot of experience in this field. Hence, they were naturally chosen for the top job," she adds. But the gender curse has struck here too. According to her, a function that had seen only woman bosses in the past is now witnessing the presence of men at the top. She cites C V L Srinivas and R Gowthaman examples to make her point.
So what is the right job for a woman? Speaking about tasks suitable for women, Das of Zee - who is an old Times of India hand - states how women are fit for jobs that are less 'masculine' in nature. "For circulation, for instance, you have to be up there at 4 am. Production is another area you won't find many women in. How can a lady jump onto a machine and run it?" asks Das. Women are considered good at analysis and looking into finer details. Journalism? Ashish Bagga, CEO, India Today Group, points to journalism where many women are doing so well, some as editors of magazines. For all that, the dearth of women leaders in newspapers continues. Shah blames it on print being one of the oldest mediums.
In summing, the low percentage of women in senior positions in the newspaper business seems to be driven by a combination of factors. One, the printing and distribution of the product makes it akin to manufacturing, which has been dominated by men. Two, it is largely a family owned business, often patriarchal in nature, where the 'men of the family' call the shots. Women are virtually invisible in the higher echelons of the print business though several newspaper companies clock a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore or more, have professionalised, and some are publicly listed too.
In some businesses that do not have the peculiarities that the print media has, women may not have had the chance to get a look in. Consider television. "The television industry borrowed a lot of management talent from wherever it could, from laterals, from other industries," says Paritosh Joshi, strategic advisor, Ormax Media and former CEO, STAR CJ Network India. "The more masculine roles such as overall administration, operations, were managed by men," says Joshi. But things never changed. The TV industry did not do as much as IT firms, to attain better gender balance in terms of pre-natal leaves, conscious recruitment or day-care centres.
Hopefully, the next time Reema visits the organization for a conference, she will find more cabins - and boardrooms - occupied by women.
A Note From the Editor
I began writing about the advertising, media and marketing space more than 20 years ago. In the magazine I edited then, we conducted an annual survey of advertising agencies. Each agency had to fill in a field, 'Top Managers'. Few women figured under that head. I reasoned at the time that women had just begun entering advertising in large numbers; a decade or so later the gender balance would be better.
Things have changed but to a far lower degree than I'd have imagined. In the interim years, media publishing has flourished. Print and TV have become large businesses in their own right. Digital, radio and out-of-home have emerged. Hordes of young women have joined - but not so many have got to the top.
Media departments - now media agencies - have the best gender balance. Some creative agencies like JWT consciously work towards supporting women do their best. In contrast, several of the biggest agencies have virtually no women among their seniormost managers.
The television business is packed with talented young women but still, considering those numbers, I'd have thought that they would be better represented. Newspapers are, of course, a desert when it comes to women at the top. It continues to be an entirely male-dominated business. Even editorially, I can't recall a single major newspaper ever being headed by a woman. If there are exceptions I've overlooked, it will only prove the rule.
The purpose of this cover story is not to say that advertising and media have fewer top managers than in other sectors. It is only to understand why, relative to the number of women who do work, so few reach the top.
Indian men are lucky. They have to play a single role, that of bread winner. Indian women, on the other hand, have to work in office and, at home, play housewife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister - and many other characters, besides. It is no surprise that so many set off on a career with enthusiasm only to give up halfway.
Companies need to ask themselves what they can do about it - if not because they care for gender representation, in their own interest. Losing out on half the people out there doesn't seem like very good HR management.