‘Why are there no men on this panel?’

Preethi Sanjeevi, Carmen Benitez, Eveline Lye, Roshni Mahtani

Preethi Sanjeevi, Carmen Benitez, Evelina Lye, Susana Tsui, Roshni Mahtani. Pic: Click2View

The question of how assertive women in the communications business are in pushing to progress their careers in the non-confrontational Asian context was at the centre of a debate on gender equality at Ad:tech Asean today.

There was visible disagreement in a session titled ‘How bad-ass women are (and will be) winning in digital in Asean’ between Carmen Benitez, the founder of social media tech firm Fetch Plus, and PHD Asia boss Susana Tsui, over whether there was a need for change, or whether women could get further if only they were more open about what they wanted from their careers.

Tsui, who spent much of her career rising through the ranks at Ogilvy to APAC COO of OgilvyOne before being hired as regional CEO of PHD in May 2013, suggested that there was no reason why a woman could not progress to the top in Asia if they are clear and open about their ambitions.

“It’s ok to want it [progression in your career]. It’s ok to tell people that you want it. But your actions need to demonstrate that you want it. It’s a simplified way of looking at it, but if you recognise what you want, there’s no reason why you can’t get it.”

Benitez countered that to be successful as a women in business “you can’t just want it”.

It should be recognised that career progression for a woman is “tough, really hard,” she said.

“Women are going to have to get over a lot of barriers. We have to demand a change to policy. We have to go way further than just wanting it.”

“We have to realise that it’s tough being a women in our shoes – even now. People think life is good and easy, but it’s not,” she said.

She referred to data showing that between 2010 and 2013, just three per cent of venture capital funding in the US went to female entrepreneurs.

Tsui disputed Benitez’s point. “There is a tendency for women to want to have their fair share. But in the practical sense, we are making a big assumption that all ideas [of gender equality] are the same. When it comes to it, is it really a big discrimination or equality issue?”

“We need to be sensitive to life stage. Women often have more to think about,” she said.

The industry needs to build better support systems and think more practically about maternity leave, as “organisations are not ready to support new mums coming back to work,” Tsui said, adding that there needed to be a fairer share of parenting at home.

Seeking a fairer go for women is also a matter of culture, Tsui said.

“I agree that there are hurdles for women, but there’s also cultural sensitivity around being confrontational. I’d just prefer not to be confrontational. It’s not how I was brought up.”

“Being non-confrontational is not a woman thing, it’s an Asian thing,” she said.

On how to best progress in their careers, Tsui said that first there was a need for women to be more honest with themselves.

“You need to identify what your goals are. If you’re in an environment that is difficult, there are only two ways out: push on and up, or leave.”

“If you’re ambitious, you need to choose an environment where you thrive. The whole world is not against you. There are different ways to achieving what you want. You should embrace being a woman.”

Preethi Sanjeevi, regional CMO of digital agency VML Qais, also raised the issue of Asian women feeling that they are culturally bound not to be assertive in their ambitions.

“There’s wanting and there’s demanding. What’s the right attitude to have to win [in your career]? The tough thing is that it’s ok for men to have that attitude. But some question that attitude in women,” she said.

The role of men in debating the gender equality issue was raised by the marketing lead for digital agency Sapient Nitro, Evelina Lye.

“Why are there not men on this panel? It should have been split 50:50,” she said.

Salary transparency is a good first step to address the gender power balance, Lye suggested.

“Why can’t salaries be transparent? If we knew how much directors (not individuals, but senior level) were earning it would help close the income gap.”

“We need to know promotion rates too – are men being promoted faster than women in the same seniority band? These changes would have a sustainable impact,” she said.

Roshni Mahtani, founder of Tickled Media, the publisher of and, finished the session with the advice: “It’s ok to be a woman in a sea of men. We shouldn’t shy away from situations that are male dominated. It’s great to be a rose among the thorns.”

The session started with a video featuring Cindy Gallop, who chaired the Glass Lion jury at Cannes, a new category to challenge gender bias in the ad industry. She called on every player in the industry to look at themselves and ask if they were being fair on gender.

On the screen behind the panel was an image of a Facebook post from Cindy Gallop that pointed out that Ogilvy’s winning team picture for agency of the year at Cannes featured not a single woman.

Cindy Gallop Facebook post


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