Industry POV

Every day is Women's Day at iProspect

08 Mar 2017

Ruth Stubbs, Joanna Catalano and Rubeena Singh are leading from the front in an industry that has very few women at the helm. BestMediaInfo.com catches up with each of them to know what it is like to be a woman at the top

Every year, come International Women’s Day, and one can see people everywhere waxing eloquent about women and why it is important to celebrate them. Brands will come out with communication revolving around women, Google will come out with a new doodle to commemorate the day, your WhatsApp will be flooded with messages telling you how wonderful women are and by nightfall everything will be forgotten.

The next day, people will go back to preaching that women shouldn’t walk around at night, that finding a job shouldn’t be on their agenda and that asking for equal rights is sheer madness. So this Women’s Day, BestMediaInfo.com brings to you three women leaders who have broken gender stereotypes and make their voice heard every day, whether it is International Women’s Day or not.

For an agency that hadn’t even accounted for a women’s washroom when it started, iProspect today has come a long way. One third of the workforce at iProspect’s India office today are women against an industry standard of around 15-20 per cent. Ruth Stubbs, Global President, iProspect; Joanna Catalano, CEO, APAC, iProspect and Rubeena Singh, CEO, iProspect India are helming three key positions at the organisation and BestMediaInfo.com speaks to them about being a woman in the industry.

Stubbs, who has been a part of the media industry for about 27 years, started her journey as a junior media planner/trader in Sydney working on Unilever and has been with iProspect since 2011.

Stubbs feels that while there were challenges she had to face on account of being a woman, she has also benefitted being the ‘token female’.

“I think there are always challenges that occur along the journey. Some I can attribute to being a woman, some not. To be honest, at times, I actually benefited; being provided access to opportunities (maybe as a token female), ahead of my experience. This is a gift (albeit a backhanded one) to be taken advantage of, which I did (and was encouraged to). There have been many situations that have challenged my confidence as a woman (especially in some more traditional working cultures), however, I don’t often let it bother me. I know I am much more supportive of young women in our industry today, understanding from my own experience, that support and mentorship can change the path of a young woman,” said Stubbs.

Catalano entered the media industry a bit untraditionally. In the mid-90s she worked on a US government-funded initiative in Ukraine following the nation’s independence from the Soviet Union. Given the mass economic reforms pushed by the government, she worked with the media to support government organisations and initiatives on several fronts thus acquainting her to the media industry.

Catalano, who is in her third month at iProspect, accepts that she has faced the evil of labelling in her line of work.

“Unfortunately, the stereotypes remain present in how women are perceived. The reality is that differences occur between men and women in their styles and pursuit of career paths. Herminia Ibarra’s work talks both about the positives (authentic, trustworthy, empathetic, inspiring service to shared goals) and negatives (not perceived as visionary, generally passed over for development roles critical to executive positions due to motherhood or views that these roles are more suited to men) impacting women. I’ve definitely experienced labelling, and often not received the honest feedback that would’ve helped me more quickly adapt my style to a mostly male senior leadership team,” said Catalano.

Singh, a gold medallist from the University of Mumbai, has a MA in Statistics. She was even offered a job at a large US-based financial institution through campus placement. But she had never aspired to work overseas. Singh wanted to work in India and that is how this statistician found herself in the media industry.

Singh believes that media is one industry that sees a lot more representation from what she calls the ‘smarter gender’ (women).

“Day-to-day professional life comes with its own set of hurdles. When you are trying to make a mark in your profession there will be some problems that one will come about, which I think are gender neutral.”

While it is true that more women enter the media industry, there are not many women at the helm.

Speaking about the issue, Catalano said, “Aside from the bias, which in my general opinion has increased with all the focus on women’s ‘leadership programmes’ and a belief that women can be trained into these roles, a few big obstacles are lack of women willing to truly sponsor more junior women; there just aren’t enough women at the top to help drive a substantive per cent increase. The other problem is reality of life stages – women do tend to hit motherhood around the critical time of increasing responsibility and the mid-level roles in which they must dedicate and prove themselves to get to the top.”

“Companies could do much more to assist women through this transition and ensure they are supported and can remain committed. For example, designing the means to help women by flexing, making it possible to not drop out. I’ve counselled many women who return to work after a first and second child; the second might be more difficult than the first. The reality is that a woman still bears a majority of work outside the home and it’s impossible to mentally ‘de prioritise’ your children, so when something needs compromise, often it’s work,” added Catalano.

Stubbs believes that this is a universal challenge and a quota system, though a beginning, might not be the best way to go about tackling the problem.

“This is a universal challenge and there is a conscious global effort to address it. I believe it is a legacy issue that many great minds are solving slowly. I don’t believe a quota system is the right way to go, but it is a start. If leaders are aware of the diverse disparity in their own organisations, then this is the first step.”

Singh believes that awareness at three levels is very important to tackle this problem.

“Working professionals need to be more aware to not harbour any gender bias. Sometimes I see women against women. So I think first we have to be aware and get over that. The second part is the role that parents play. They must also understand that the girl child is no lesser and with active support and encouragement women can scale any height that men can. Thirdly, we need to arm our working women with confidence and encouragement that they can march ahead.  A lot of women get caught up in self-doubt so we need a lot of awareness and education in that space as well,” said Singh.

Being at a position where they can create a conducive work environment for both women and men, what are the measures these women have taken to that effect?

“I have an active (leadership) role in diversity at Dentsu Aegis (in APAC) and actively drive a diversity agenda through iProspect globally. We have introduced some programmes that support women in start-ups in emerging markets, involving mentorship from our Dentsu Aegis leaders (male and female). This exposure provides experience and an awareness of the challenges women face in the start-up (and general professional) world and the economic and cultural benefits empowering female founders can have on society. Our role as an industry is critical. #hearhervoice and Female Foundry are just two of our initiatives,” said Stubbs.

For her part, Catalano has worked as a mentor, coach and career counsellor for other women. She is also President of SG organisation, Female Founders; has been a lead for SEA for more than two years at Women at Google.

Singh believes that taking a gender neutral way is the best way to ensure that no biases are harboured in the minds of her team.

“My operating style has always been very gender neutral with my team. I have never differentiated between men and women. I am always driven by the pure merit for their performance. I believe that the moment you start taking special or different measures for women you are yourselves engaging in gender bias. I think the first thing is to treat everyone as equals and create a work place that is based only on merit. We should build confidence in women that if they have the merit then they deserve an equal footing and there shouldn’t be a need for any special measures,” said Singh.

Stubbs is a staunch believer in leading by example and her one advice and message for women world over is also that.

“An important lesson for me is to lead by example. Teach our sons to respect and expect diversity and inclusion, teach our daughters to challenge diversity and noncompliance of inclusion. Then teach them how to challenge in a respectful honest way and have the confidence to own the consequences. Diversity drives innovation. Exclusion is divisive and unrewarding across the board. Innovation is the life blood of our industry after all.”

Catalano puts her emphasis on knowing what one wants.

“My advice to women is be clear on what you want, and be aware – while we can have and do a lot, we can’t have it all. Keeping reasonable expectations is liberating and necessary. Always remember your worth versus where you’re not enough. Kindness versus criticism.”

Singh on the other hand believes that women can have it all but you just have to work that much harder for it.

“My advice is always to listen to your heart and make your career decisions accordingly. I know a lot of people say that women can’t have it all but I believe that women can have it all you just have to work hard to achieve it all.”

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