When we started investigating the state of equality within Asia’s media and marketing industry back in 2017, we found that women felt unfairly judged and challenged when they tried to lead. Sadly, an update finds things are changing for the worse.

In 2017 the world was on the cusp of the #metoo movement and momentum around gender equality was gathering pace both in the West and in Asia. In the wake of a huge amount of airtime, conversations and convictions, we hoped to see a seismic shift in the situation here in Asia. However, our new findings show that the situation is getting worse. We were both shocked to see that the number of people who say that men and women are treated equally in their organisation has dropped by 15 percent, from 84 percent in 2017, to 71 percent in 2019. Over half of people think that men are more respected by top management, a figure that has doubled since 2017.

The conversation around gender caused us to confront wider inequality questions – those of race, age, sexuality, religion and disability - an undercurrent of bias that is relatively obvious, but not much discussed. Only 29 percent of people regionally reported that they thought that everyone was equally respected, and it was clear that cultural clashes cause many to feel uncomfortable in their workplaces.

However, the silver lining is that people are becoming far more confident in calling out what they view as wrong. Women are no longer accepting the status quo and are sign-posting bad behaviour. Awareness around all types of inequality is on the rise.

The study shows there has been a rise in unconscious bias training, and that people find it useful. Options like this can help open people’s eyes to the problem and be more mindful of the way they behave, but will it change behaviours that are entrenched within the industry?

Columbia Business School professor Hitendra Wadhwa believes that a focus on individuals will deliver change quickly. We love his analogy – he says that leaders often feel like they need to come in to a business and “drain the swamp”. Instead, they should encourage individual employees to “become a lotus, a flower that blooms in the middle of muddy conditions”. When employees take personal responsibility, limit their own biases and, importantly, call out others when they say or act in a negative way, they drive change. These employees set an example and encourage and inspire more lotuses to bloom.  

Diversity issues are not new. We have been trying to make changes for years, yet change is still not truly felt on the ground. An inclusive and diverse marketing industry is needed if we want to create inclusive and diverse campaigns. The most important thing is to act now while people are receptive. We all need to reflect and take responsibility for our biases, then work on the concrete actions that will make the experience better for everyone in the industry.

Looking forward, what do you think will help change things for the better? Please share your thoughts.