Next Story

Women in media: Shattering the glass screen

The number of women at decision-making positions in Pakistan’s media has increased over the years

By Asad Ali |
PUBLISHED January 16, 2022

Among the plethora of badly kept open secrets of Pakistan’s $2 billion media industry is institutional sexism. As seen in the 2020 RECMA media agency ranking report, the media agencies that were profiled had one trait in common: none of them have a female leader at the absolute top job.

Granted, Z2C Limited is led by chief strategy officer Fatima Hyder while the MediaVest team at BCP is led by Urooj Hussain, and BCP itself is steered - if not led - by chief operating officer Benish Irshad. Since the 2020 RECMA media agency ranking report was published, Wavemaker named Amna Khatib its interim MD in Pakistan and Publicis Media named Benish Irshad its new CEO for Pakistan.

“It is really, truly meaningful for me because and not just at a personal level, but also because of the barriers that I'm breaking for other women in Pakistan,” said Irshad in an interview with Campaign Asia, following her appointment. “It’s not very easy being a woman in a country that is generally perceived as conservative and driven by a lot of cultural values that are ingrained in our system and not all of them good.”

Chief among these cultural values is the inappropriate comments by male colleagues inquiring about the marital status of a female colleague, how many children she has, and casually throwing shade at her insecurities about not being present for her children. Other values involve paying men more with the assumption that only men can be breadwinners of the household, which is, of course, a farce.

Even in the year 2021, the pettiest members of the white-collar space continue to justify their lack of career progression with claims that their opposite gender counterpart manipulated her way to the top one way or the other. When junior female executives hear this talk, that too without recourse, it instills a sense of staying in one’s place. Sources that spoke to this scribe bemoaned at the number of male colleagues, from supposedly educated backgrounds, that pass comments on crimes directed at women by claiming she was asking for it.

Is it any wonder that women are unable to rise through the ranks?

“In my opinion, the media advertising industry is not gender-biased despite its workload challenges,” said Rizwan Merchant, CEO M2 Pakistan, and former CEO of OMD Pakistan. “Agencies may not be vocal about gender equality however I have not seen any instance - in a media agency - where a candidate got rejected because of her gender. In fact, one may find instances where a male gets rejected compared to a female. Reaching the C-suit all depends on the capability of the person irrespective of gender.”


Since mid-2021, Z2C Limited has pushed a female-first marketing strategy which highlighted chief strategy officer Fatima Hyder as the spokesperson and subject matter expert around the seed funding into influencer ecosystem Walee. This includes earned news distribution in the local and international press, including a press tour. A month ago, the in-house marketing team at Z2C Limited ensured that Samina Seth, the female co-founder of Walee that operated in the shadows, represented both her company and Z2C Limited for a Campaign Asia event which was pitched for by the only CIPR alumnus in Pakistan.

Another example of keeping its female leadership in the spotlight was the promotion of Fizzah Shahid to associate director, even though she was not only working remotely at the time but also in another time zone. While any other media agency may have requested resignation from employees that are relocating to a new timezone, the leadership at BCP, in a bid to retain top talent, offered flexible working arrangements.

Given Shahid’s work around Easypaisa and FinTech, she was the subject matter expert highlighted to represent BCP in a feature with The FinTech Times. This scribe was told that in any other media agency, the boomer uncle at the helm would insist that his face and name be plastered in all of these quality tier-1 media opportunities across MediaPost, Business Insider, and Campaign Asia. It is perhaps fortunate that Z2C Limited chairman Raihan Merchant appears to have no interest in corporate grandstanding, preferring that his female leadership takes not just the wheel but also the spotlight.

“The main reasons why women flourish in this organization is because there is absolutely zero gender discrimination when it comes to equal opportunities in BCP, there are no rules when it comes to what any female chooses to pursue as their interest here be it strategy, execution, finance, IT, e-commerce or anything else,” said Urooj Hussain, the head of the MediaVest team at BCP. “Plus the environment is extremely comfortable and supportive of women in the workplace. These two factors combined have made BCP into a success story of gender equality in the media/advertising industry.”

This was recently seen with the appointment of Sundus Shahid Bari as the new associate director of strategy & planning at Spark-affiliated Blitz Advertising, with her appointment announced on both Campaign Asia and Branding In Asia, coupled with no desire from the male leadership to steal the spotlight.

In a country where advertisers and agencies jump on any successful bandwagon, such as trying to replicate the magic of bSports.pk, TheViewLytics, Coke Studio, and the Pakistan Super League, what more evidence is required to combat widespread sexism? If the largest independently owned media agency group in Pakistan has set the example for how to treat and highlight female talent, what excuse do the remaining ten media agency groups have?

The root of it all

A study by Mckinsey & Company found that women are well engaged in media agencies. However, despite corporate America's greater emphasis on gender equity, women in this profession endure a more toxic work environment than males and a glass barrier that hinders them from ascending to top leadership positions.

Just like with women in other fields, women in media agencies face significant obstacles. As the three primary drivers of women's development in the media sector are examined which were—promotion, resignation, and external hiring—it is discovered that women in entry-level jobs in this field leave at a greater rate than males. Promotions at the early stages of a career foster substantial representation at the management level, but growth slows to a crawl as one nears the top. Additionally, external hiring for C-suite roles was skewed toward males, contributing to a corporate culture in which females are widely represented in entry-level positions but constitute a minority at senior positions.

Developments in women's position and involvement in the media worldwide as well as their image in the media have been gradual but noticeable. As shown in the Global Media Monitoring Project's Pakistan Country Report, Pakistan is no exception. The analysis discovered that media material, especially portrayals of girls and women, continues to be primarily patriarchal, gender insensitive, and occasionally violates the rights of consumers, as well as media duty and accountability.

Females at decision-making positions in Pakistan's media have increased over the years, although their numbers remain poor, particularly compared with male peers. Gender balance in leadership, decision-making, and governance procedures is critical for advancing gender equality and empowering women yet simultaneously enhancing business performance.

Despite advancements for women in management, the "broken rung" remained a significant impediment in 2019. For the sixth consecutive year, women lost progress in the first step up towards manager. Just 85 women were promoted to manager for every 100 males. As a result, women continued to be heavily underrepresented in entry-level management at the start of 2020 they held just 38% of manager-level posts, compared to 62% for males.

The humbug of industry

With an impending talent crisis, the sector had several opportunities to close the gender divide by increasing the number of female employees. Nonetheless, employers' distinct sense of hypocrisy tends to impact their recruiting culture, as they fail to recognize the value of women in the workplace. Apart from doubling the talent pool, increasing the number of female employees may also boost the company's performance.

The statistics are often similar when looking at the global ratio of women to males worldwide. The continuous coverage gap results from the media's obsession with leaders at the expense of everyone else and the well-known 'glass ceiling,' which prevents working women from advancing to leadership roles.

Nordicom's 2017 survey exposes startling data about how males dominate the leadership of the world's 100 top media organizations. Thirty firms have no female executives. The analysis maps men and women in CEO roles, general senior management positions, and seats on boards of directors, using the Institute of Media and Communications Policy's list of the world's top 100 media businesses. As a result, these organizations' executive teams are significantly underrepresented by women.

Axonn, a major marketing agency, released a report in 2015, revealed that men were likely to hold prominent positions in media agencies. Despite the fact that women appear to be more likely to join marketing as a career (28 % versus 14 %, males appeared to be more likely to stay for more than a decade.

Today's landscape is much different. Women are somewhat more likely than males to enter the marketing field (21% vs. 16%), and things appear to be fairly even beyond 10 years (34 percent of men and 35 percent of women).

While women have significantly more experience than men, males continue to dominate top marketing positions. The great majority of respondents who work in organizations with a single person responsible for marketing overall stated that the position is held by a man (62 % vs. 38 %). In 2015, this was more evenly distributed at 55% vs. 45%.

Females are significantly less likely than males to be noticed in the media sector globally. As behavioral scientists who research women's underrepresentation in the workforce understand how this gender-biased view of society may reinforce and perpetuate detrimental gender stereotypes. It is self-evident that the media industry must alter the way it portrays the world – but who can alter the media itself?

Facing the broken rungs

Since many women have been barred from entering the media in Pakistan, a few women are striving to recognize their ability. So why are women underrepresented in senior positions in the media industry? Most media companies' top management is male and doesn't respect women's rights significantly contributes to women's exclusion from maximum employment.

Although the number of women in the industry has been growing worldwide, studies show that the top positions (producers, directors, chief editors, and publishers) are still dominated by males. This difference is evident in any part of the world where cultural barriers to women fulfilling the job which are regarded as masculine domains.

The amount of engagement and impact of women in the media has ramifications for media content: female professional journalists are more likely than their male counterparts to represent other women's demands and opinions. It's crucial to note that not all women in the industry will be gender-conscious and likely to cover women's needs and viewpoints, and men can cover gender problems successfully. Male and female journalists' opinions do not differ considerably, according to recent studies from 18 different nations.

A sign for conventional duties

Gender representation in television advertising exemplifies the socio-cultural tendencies prevalent in society. Most Pakistani television advertisements depict women performing traditional tasks such as child care, household upkeep, and subordinate/supportive roles—the distribution of stereotypical and non-stereotypical representations of women in television ads offering various items. The results indicate that 73% of advertisements feature women performing stereotypical (conventional) tasks such as cooking, washing clothes, serving food to other family members, and playing subordinate roles.

These stereotypical advertisements were repeated three times more frequently than non-stereotypical advertisements featuring women performing physical activities, looking self-autonomous, outgoing, etc. Additionally, these commercials affect how consumers perceive the execution of their specific responsibilities in their daily routine. The conventional labels were surrounding the particular assumption of women's status in society, based on incorrect assumptions that are regularly depicted in Pakistani television advertisements.

There are numerous reasons to be concerned regarding gender issues in the media industries—not the least of which is the critical importance of breaking down stereotypes and having diverse narrators share their unique perspectives.

The 50:50 Project

Assuring the top of the business remains accountable for inclusion and diversity could shine a light on the absence of female executives. 53% of human-resources respondents from media agencies claim that HR is held responsible for progress (or lack of) on diversity metrics or objectives, compared to just 27% who report holding the CEO accountable.

If businesses are genuinely devoted to diversity and gender parity, senior leadership must prioritize the problem. The BBC's 50:50 Project is an excellent illustration: Tony Hall, the BBC's director-general, established an objective of at least 50% female participation in developing BBC programming by 2019. In April 2018, just 27% of production teams linked with the 50:50 Project reported getting at least 50% female participants; by April 2019, that figure had risen to 74%.

The 50:50 Project is dedicated only to gender representation. It will not resolve the broader issue of gender equality. However, it demonstrates that change is possible when a growth mindset is adopted; a clear and visible instrument for accomplishing change without requiring it is provided. Colleagues have agency and responsibility for the process.