Last year I was selected to go to the Cannes Lions’ See It Be It, an initiative that was launched in 2014 as a response to the gender imbalance in advertising; an estimated 25% of agency creatives are women, and only 11% will reach the creative director level – with the ultimate aim of changing the ratio of women leaders in agencies’ creative departments.
Six hundred and fifty women from around the globe applied and I was one of the selected 15. Alas, the French Embassy rejected my visa on the basis that my visa application was unreliable. Yeah that makes two of us. A successful woman in Pakistan does seem unbelievable. Given that feminism and the consequent activism are being picked by brands as platforms to achieve whatever sales target they have to meet, it got me thinking. Do we have the same gender imbalance and the glass ceiling in our industry?
I look around and see some fantastic women leaders. Zehra Zaidi, Sara Koraishy, Kiran Murad, Shazia Khan, Sadia Qutubuddin, Madiha Noor, Khushbakht Osman, and many more names that will fill this page. To ensure that these are not subjective opinions, I talked to a couple of women leaders in the industry.
The first question was the obvious one: the pay gap. Do we have one? The answer, surprisingly, was ‘no’. Our global image might be of a terror-ridden country, but men and women earn the same in the advertising circles of Pakistan.
Hold on until I finish before you start your rant and play the eye candy card.
When I asked the CEO of a leading agency about this, his reply was simple.
“I don’t think about hiring men or women. I look for dedicated and capable employees and in my experience, women are more focused, better at multitasking and driven, as if they have a point to prove that they have to be twice as good as a male colleague.”
The same views were echoed by a creative lead who felt that she made it to her current position because she knew her obligations to her kids and home.
“Like everyone else, I have 24 hours in the day, but my task list at home and my guilt about leaving my kids behind keeps me focused. I have to be sure that the work I am doing is worth the time spent away from my family.”
These seem like fairytales, especially if we look at the number of women who left work after marriage. A standard question posed to any female candidate for any position is, “Do you intend to stop working after marriage? If yes, please tell us now.”
Most answer no at the time but the reality could be the opposite, depending on whom they marry. Maybe we don’t need to encourage women to join the workforce; rather, we need to encourage the families to let women continue working. All the women who made it to the top of the corporate ladder are those who have secure and understanding men watching their backs. Yes, the better halves or the kings of the castle – the dads. The same is the case for yours truly. I was admitted to the Chelsea College of Arts and Design in London after marriage. My husband could not leave his career and I took my nine-month old son with me to complete my degree. It was beyond difficult, but we survived and I got the degree without being emotionally scarred. After obtaining my degree, we spent some time travelling around England and on a trip to Oxford, I met a white woman who almost choked on the apple she was munching when I told her my story.
Oxford student, between coughs: You mean a Pakistani man allowed you and your baby to come here alone and study?
Oxford student: But he is Pakistani?
Me: Yes, very much so.
Maybe the divide is more pronounced in the West? Or maybe, we are a handful of outliers who got lucky.
I spoke to the husband of one such outlier and he was very clear.
“I realised that my wife would never be able to do a boring job. I am not ashamed to earn less than her or to know that she is more educated or talented than I am. All of this makes her the person that she is and I have to support her. Roles at home are evolving. A father feels just as worried about a sick child. These are no longer my dad’s times when children were raised only by moms. I am a parent and parenting is my responsibility too.”
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Another successful woman was very clear when she burst this bubble.
“Having it all is a lie. No woman can have it all. My kids will not remember their mom’s cooking, nor will they have photos with me at every child activity at school. I envy housewives at times, especially when I travel for work and have to go home to a hotel room. This is the time for my kids and I will never get it back. My biggest fear is that once they grow up they will ask me where I was.”
"Having it all is a lie. No woman can have it all. My kids will not remember their mom’s cooking, nor will they have photos with me at every child activity at school."
Five out of the six women I spoke to had spent their pregnancies working at an advertising agency. They reassured me that they never felt threatened or weird doing their job while being expectant moms. All chose to go back to work after maternity leave.
“We had a Prime Minister who ran a country while pregnant, surely I can do my job,” said a proud working mom. While we have an inspiration in Benazir Bhutto as a working mom, role models in our families are rare to find. The fact that all of these working moms had ‘stay-at-home’ mothers themselves is a confidence shaker at times.
“My mother is quick to point out that she never worked and the assumed shortcomings in my child are due to my work priorities. I used to get depressed about this and argue with her that research has proved that working women raise more confident daughters and more empathetic sons. Later I realised that she just wanted affirmation of being a good mom herself. Also, she cannot relate to my job, so why try to change her beliefs? I just nod and smile now.”
The stereotypical world of advertising has shown us the many faces and struggles of the housewife, but the realistic struggles of a working mom are swept under the rug of empowerment. In any ad for a bank, you will always see a proud mom working as a pilot or doctor with her arms folded on her chest, as if she can take on both the world and the tantrums of her children in one breath.
The real stories, of calls home to check on homework, school runs during lunch breaks, and the seven o’clock call to the husband to eat dinner without me, are pending for the creators of such ads.
Atiya Zaidi is ECD (North), Synergy Dentsu. firstname.lastname@example.org