Published in Jan-Feb 2022
One of the best things about Downton Abbey is the independence the Crawley women gradually achieve and Robert’s willing acceptance of it – especially Edith taking ownership of her magazine by becoming the editor. TV dramas apart, there is no denying that despite a global workforce still heavily dominated by men, women have come a long way since they first started to work. Today, women are start-up founders, software engineers, adwomen and more.
In Pakistan, the advertising and marketing space has been more accepting, relative to other professions, in giving women career opportunities – despite the existence of a plethora of conservative and cultural barriers. From pioneers such as Musharaf Hai, former CEO, Unilever and L’Oréal Pakistan and Zohra Yusuf, Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R, to trailblazers such as Fareshteh Aslam, CEO, Talking Point PK, Ruby Haider, CEO, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, Zeelaf Munir, MD & CEO, EBM, and Sabene Saigol, CEO RED Publicis to rising stars such as Benish Irshad, COO, Starcom and CEO, Publicis Media, Sidra Iqbal, journalist and TV personality, and Hira Mohibullah, former Executive Creative Director, BBDO Pakistan, all of them have in one way or another challenged gender norms and dented (but not shattered) the glass ceiling.
In this context, the question we could pose is why, despite the repeated dents, the glass ceiling has yet to be shattered? However, rather than ponder the abstraction inherent in the question, the more pertinent one is to ask – in this era of self-actualisation – what is it that women want as a base starting point from their professional environment? To this end, Aurora polled 21 women in advertising and marketing. What follows is a summation of their responses. It is important to bear in mind that these women are from privileged backgrounds relative to the majority of working women in Pakistan and their responses are reflective of their own experiences.
1. A Level Playing Field: Yes and no seem to be the answer. Ruby Haider is categorical in stating that “no profession in Pakistan or globally provides a level playing field for women.” Fareshteh Aslam brings in a qualifier by saying, “if there is any field where women can operate on a level playing field, it is marketing.” For Nida Haider, Managing Partner, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi, “The playing field will never be level for women who have families.” This brings up the question of the gender pay gap. Daniah Ishtiaq, Planning Director, BBDO Pakistan, says advertising is one industry where “women are at parity with men” and salaries depend on their performance and negotiation skills. Fareshteh Aslam tellingly has another take. She says there is and “it starts from the interview process. A woman will often accept the first offer.” A view echoed by Farah Naz Haider Shaikh, a senior marketing professional at a private organisation: “Gender plays no role here; good negotiating skills do.” Zoya Altaf, Manager, Branding & Internal Communications, Engro Corporation, talks about pay disparity as being prevalent “which is why we see less women at the top.” Seema Jaffer, CEO, Bond Advertising, weighs in by highlighting the fact that in the salary negotiation “women are often told that they are not the main breadwinners.”
2. Up the Ladder: There was agreement about the myriad issues women face in climbing up the ladder, ranging from a generalised reluctance within companies to appoint women in top positions based on the assumption that they will not be able to deliver due to family commitments. Sidra Salman, Creative Director, Synergy Group, sums it with: “‘Will you work after marriage?’, ‘Do you plan to have kids?’ and ‘Will you continue your career once you have children?’ – ‘yes’ to any three questions is seen as an impossible ambition.” Seema Jaffer says women constantly have to prove themselves by working twice as hard if they are to reach leadership positions. Ruby Haider adds that women may not necessarily be at a disadvantage, but that their career growth is “viewed with some trepidation. ‘Will she be able to deal?’ The question hovers in the air.”
3. Women-Centric Approaches: Benish Irshad talks about women having to “contend with periods, pregnancies, PPD and miscarriages – and the emotional trauma that comes with them requires paid leave and most agencies do not offer this.” Support is also required in the form of daycare, flexible working hours and remote working options. Farah Naz Haider Shaikh and Seema Jaffer highlight the need for re-entry programmes to enable women to resume their careers after a gap (read: childcare). Fareshteh Aslam points out that if women are given the downtime they need “employers will be rewarded by a greater commitment by their female employees once they are back on the job.”
4. The Late Hour Syndrome: Women face permission issues that have to be negotiated with spouses or parents, especially when it comes to working late hours. Here it must be emphasised that the notion of working, which is endemic throughout the profession, is now increasingly challenged by both women and men. As Sidra Salman says, “The marketing and advertising industry bigwigs have developed and supported a toxic late sitting culture for years. If you can hang out in the office until late, are available on WhatsApp 24/7 and do not have a life other than your professional commitments, then there is a clear growth track for you.”
5. At Home: The majority agreed that career success is dependent on having solid support systems at home. This, says Daniah Ishtiaq, “stems from the traditional roles associated with women. To balance work and home life, women need a support system so that they can wear multiple hats as wives, mothers and employees.” The problem is that this is not always forthcoming (not everyone has accommodating in-laws) or even realistic (parents and in-laws may have their own set of issues that prevent them from providing this support on an ongoing basis). Yet, as Zehra Zaidi, Group Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy Pakistan, points out, “No matter their position at work, home will always remain a women’s biggest concern.”
6. Winds of Change: The answer, apart from creating more women-friendly work environments is “more women” (there is no doubting what critical mass can eventually achieve) and even better “more women in leadership positions.” As Sabene Saigol reminds us, “Some of the best talent in Pakistan sits at home because they don’t want to work in male-dominated, sleazy environments.” An important issue here is that although more women are being given top executive positions in the creative functions, making it to the C-suite is a different proposition. Zeelaf Munir emphasises that more women in leadership can “serve as inspiration and champion women as positive contributing members to the economy and society.” This goes hand in hand with mentorship and providing women to women networking opportunities – as Benish Irshad puts it, “women leaders speaking out and offering advice on support forums... to encourage young [women]”.
7. Just Do It: Ultimately, change will have to come from women themselves and this begins with adopting the right approach. As Musharaf Hai says, “We need to move the debate from gender, as it can trap women into a ‘helpless’ situation. We need to be the architects of change and create the journey.” In Sidra Iqbal’s opinion, “Women must stand firm, cultivate the support system they require and not simply hope it will be provided to them.”
Clearly, there is still a long way to go to significantly level up the playing field. The 21 women Aurora polled are exceptional women. They have moved the needle and are making as important a contribution to the country’s economy as their male counterparts are, and are doing this despite contending with their ‘second’ job at home and by adapting themselves to work environments and policies designed for the men who work there. A question to ask perhaps is, what is the distance between what men want and what women want? It may be shorter than we dare to hope.