Sexual harassment at Asian agencies ‘rampant’ – with men abusing power of senior roles

Following Cindy Gallop's call-to-action against sexism and sexual harassment in the media and marketing industry, Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson looks at the scale of the problem in this region

Nobody has ever denied that sexism and harassment exists within Asia’s media and marketing scene. However, it feels like nobody has ever really admitted it’s a major issue either.

While it’s never a good idea to jump on social media trends, the current ‘#MeToo’ hashtag phenomenon plus adland legend Cindy Gallop’s rallying cry for change made it clear that this was a conversation that needed to be publicly aired.

Cindy Gallop

It was Cindy herself who told Mumbrella Asia earlier this year that it’s not uncommon to hear of “scary stuff” in the industry across Asia – even rape. 

Therefore, below are the testimonies from three people – two women and one man – who have worked for many years in Singapore’s creative, media and public relations industries at a senior level. Their stories speak of clients abusing their power to gain sexual favours, senior men humiliating women publicly for their own personal amusement and the old grey area of ‘what happens in the bar, stays in the bar’.

Readers will note that all of the people interviewed remain anonymous. How can we change anything if people choose to hide their identities? Some of you might ask this question. But as our first interviewee reveals, there is still a fear of retribution and punishment for those that speak out.

It is the stories that are important, not the naming and shaming. We need to know if there is a dominant culture of abuse within the industry as a starting point. So this is the beginning, rather than the end, of the dialogue:

A senior female from Singapore’s creative and media industry

“I am not from Singapore, but most of the harassment I have experienced was while working here. The worst I have experienced was when I was leading an agency and was working with quite a senior client who, at company events, was very flirty towards me. I would politely tell him no you’re a client, you’re married. What are you doing? One time he called a meeting and invited me for drinks after – and I invited a male colleague of mine to come along.  

“When we called the cab to go home, he insisted on my colleague being dropped off first. And then next thing, I find we are being dropped off at a romantic restaurant and I knew it was a set-up. I didn’t want to go. I told him it was inappropriate, but we was very insistent. He used his position as a client get his way with me.  After that I took myself off the account and handed him off to a male business director.

“Another case happened when my account manager was meeting with a new client – who was connected to our CEO – to sign a new business contract in a coffee shop. During the meeting, he claimed he had left the papers in his hotel room and was very insistent that she went to his room with him.

“Despite her saying she would wait for him at the coffee shop, he was insistent. So she pretended she needed to go to the bathroom and then ran away. She was very upset and very reluctant to tell me because she had come away without the contract and the would-be client was the CEO’s friend. I was very pissed off and told the CEO what a sleaze his so-called referred client was and that we would not be taking his business.

“I think the biggest issue around harassment is when it becomes systemic and institutional within a company.  There has to be a line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.  To a certain extent, what is tolerated becomes ‘accepted’ and what is accepted over time becomes normal.  There needs to be a culture that allows women not to feel they will be punished or threatened for speaking out against what is clearly unacceptable in the first place. Unless people can speak out without fear and get support from their companies, nothing will change.”

A senior woman working in Singapore’s creative industry

“I have experienced sexual harassment. I was at a party and a very senior male creative felt me up and then remarked to another senior from New York that I was single and ‘up for the taking’. The man from New York simply responded by saying he had met me before. I felt like a dog at a show.

“It wasn’t much of a surprise to be honest. I think there is a deep-rooted problem of sexual harassment among very senior creatives because these are very male-dominated environments. It’s not that agency culture condones sexual harassment, but it does put senior – male – creatives on a kind of pedestal.

“They are rock stars in the agency and they are used to getting away with treating people badly, and the senior management behave like puppy dogs around them. They allow the harassment to go on until it all ends in tears. The perpetrator is often forced to leave, but it’s the management that has let it get to that point by not nipping their behaviour in the bud earlier.

“In Singapore, it does seem to be largely older Western men harassing younger Asian women. And we’re not talking about what happens at the water cooler, it’s at parties. For years, we have made excuses that ‘it happened at a bar’ so people are getting away with it. Things are changing now because everyone is shit scared [of being accused], but agencies do need to step up and stop fostering this bad behaviour culture.”

A senior man from the PR and advertising industry in Singapore

“It is pretty rampant at agency parties, especially networks. And it’s because you find in those companies, the people are high up are not local – 99 per cent of the time it is young Asian women, often Singaporean Chinese, and older Western men.

“What happens at parties is that sober, intelligent people get sucked into the rule of the jungle and it becomes a grey area. In 10 parties I have been to, at nine I have seen men touching women inappropriately. They rely on the confusion it brings when someone is young and junior – it depends on power. These people are responsible for their bonuses. And often the women don’t come forward. The only time they do is when they are about to get fired.

“The worst thing is when it happens to very senior men, the only consequence is to move them to another market or country – like they do with priests. That is what needs to stop.”

Mumbrella Asia would like to hear your testimonies. If you wish to share them with us – either openly or anonymously – please contact the editor Eleanor Dickinson on eleanor@mumbrella.asia 


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