Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

An All Too Familiar Conundrum

Published in Jan-Feb 2022

Families play a huge role in empowering women and advertising needs to fundamentally change the stereotypes they live by.

By the time this piece is published, our purpose campaign for Shan Foods will be on-air. How will the world react to it? I don’t know. There might be hate, justification, excuses, or love being sent by the keyboard warriors. Despite all these risks before us, we found a client who believed in the work as much as we do. Why is it needed, you may ask. It’s a fictional story told from the lens of a brand that has, for some years, been championing the fact that preparing food is not limited to only one person. It is a fictional story, but fiction is a lie that tells us the truth again and again, wrote the wise Neil Gaiman. 

A scary truth is the fact that most women doctors don’t practise medicine because of their household situation. Their careers are over as soon as the wedding cards are printed or the mithai for the new baby is distributed. These intelligent, hard-working women don’t have a choice. The dream they dreamt, with sleep-deprived, open eyes while studying late into the night to get into medical colleges, is shattered by their waking up to their family’s or society’s expectations. It’s not easy becoming a doctor, it is even harder to stay one. Thirty-six hour shifts, gruelling working conditions, no childcare, the emotional burden of patients and their families, knowing that someone’s life is in your hands – and all this in a day’s work. After which you go home to your second job of taking care of a family. Given that Pakistan has one of the lowest ratios of doctors per patient, the medical community, the government, and most of all the families of the doctors, need to do their job so that more doctors can stay in the job.

Why are you reading about doctors in an advertising and marketing magazine? Because the “doctor bahu” phenomenon is a cultural problem and this is what advertising has the power to solve, or at least highlight. 

Women empowerment organisations all over the world are trying to solve gender disparity issues by talking about equality of pay and recognition, imposter syndrome, speaking up, confidence versus competence and policy changes. The most important factor, however, is the commitment of the families. As the inflation index rises in Pakistan, the rise of two-income families is inevitable. However, as financial imperatives demand that more women work, the big question is whether the families will give in to these imperatives or not. 

Compared to being a doctor, a job in advertising and marketing is a walk in the park. However, it does have some similarities. Long hours, emotional stress, being constantly on call, not enough childcare options and high-pressure environments. The reality of a Pakistani working woman is the same, no matter the profession she practices. Being a homemaker is the priority and the expectation. It is the second job and it doesn’t pay. There is no recognition and everyone under your supervision is your responsibility. A kid doesn’t do well in school, it’s because the mom works. The house is in disarray, it’s because the mom works. 

Here is a flip side to this picture. 

The woman shares the burden of the finances and the family shares the load at home. The husband doesn’t just babysit the kids; he plays the part of a parent. The mother-in-law doesn’t make snide remarks, she provides support. The relatives understand. Just like they say it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the whole family to raise a woman at the workplace. When the family works for you, you can work for the family. Women will secure more jobs when the family is not insecure about their success. This will also mean it is okay for the man to be in her shadow and not hog the spotlight; to forget the idea of a trophy wife and trust her. Be committed to her success and be the invisible wind below the bahu’s wing. 

Every day, working women the world over make the difficult choice of leaving their children behind and this is known as ‘mom guilt’. Mom guilt, coupled with family members shaming her for her choices, adds up to more women dropping out. There is no simple solution that works for everyone. As advertisers, we are cultural shapers. What we show in our ads, people tend to follow. Here are a few suggestions. 

Here is the setting of many ads. Mom is busy in the kitchen and her husband is reading the newspaper on the sofa. Mom is rushing back from work, she is late picking the kids up from school, she is the only one awake at night fixing a broken item. How many ads can you name that depicts one of these scenarios? I want to see working women taking their kids to the office. I want to see them enjoying family vacations they helped pay for. The creature comforts she enjoys because she is financially independent. The gifts she bought for her husband and in-laws because she can. When we show her enjoying the money she makes, other women would like to make that money. Still a long way for us to go, given that having pockets in women’s clothes is still a rarity (read the bewildering and sexist history of pockets on women’s clothes as told by the Victoria & Albert Museum). 

Show the husband cooking, the father-in-law mopping up, the wife managing the finances, the kids doing the laundry, the sister playing cricket in the gully, the brother teaching the sister how to ride a motorcycle. Show the pride of the dad when the daughter is promoted; the faith of a husband when his wife is losing confidence. Show it enough until it becomes acceptable. When it is acceptable on the screen it will be acceptable on the street.

I have been working for nearly 20 years, and every day I can show up for work is because people around me show up for me. It was not easy for sure, but they made it easier. Family, friends, colleagues and champions – I have been lucky to find them all. When I promised myself to strive for betterment, they all took an oath to make me better. 

Increasing the number of women staying in the workforce will not take a village; it will take each one of us. It will take the whole country. 

Atiya Zaidi is MD & ECD, BBDO Pakistan and co-Founder, Shero Space.

The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of any organisation.