Creating a woman's world

Arab media is dominated by men, with few women occupying senior positions. Richard Abbott asks if there is any sign of the balance shifting and if enough is being done to encourage women into the industry

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By  Richard Abbott Published  October 2, 2005

Creating a woman's world|~|Ghanem200.jpg|~|Shawsan Ghanem is managing director of Active PR|~|When Radha Mukherji took the top job at advertising agency DDB in Muscat, Oman, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. In the Middle East, where men make the business decisions and women are often seen but not heard, how would this Indian woman fare? The fact that she is still there nine years later suggests that she has won over even the most sexist of colleagues or associates. But she remains puzzled as to why so few women have followed in her footsteps. “I think I am a bit of an oddity, in Oman certainly, and to some extent the Middle East also,” she says. “It is still rare to see a company run by a woman.” Indeed, when you ask media observers to name women occupying high profile positions in Middle East media, the list stops at just a handful. Two that crop up on most people’s lists are Dr Amina al Rustamani, executive director of media for the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone, and Susan Furness, boss of PR firm Strategic Solutions, who recently saw her company link up with the Euro RSCG global network. There are a sprinkling of women running niche media operations, but very few have managed to climb the ladder to the top of the big companies. There is a growing number of expat women, especially in PR, but very few indigenous Arabs. Mukherji says she was respected for the experience that she had already gleaned from her agency days in India, where she worked for Ogilvy & Mather and JWT. “Because I came in with several years of advertising industry experience, I was treated like a professional and men respected me,” she says. But she still sees herself as the exception to the rule. “The question should be why more women are not working in media in this region. Attracting expat women to the region is a little more difficult. Most come along with their husbands’ jobs,” she says. Christel Whelan, managing director of DMC-based online specialist 121 Agency, has been in the UAE for 13 years since moving from her native France. She recalls a time when being a woman was much harder. “Thirteen years ago, one or two of my clients would not speak to me. They would speak in Arabic to a man, who would then speak to me,” she says. That scenario has now been confined to the past but the culture and traditions of the Middle East inevitably play a part in the quest for equality of the sexes. The UAE is among the most open counties in the Middle East. While religion still plays an integral part in its society, the rise of tourism and the economy means that a Western way of life sits alongside local traditions. Compare this with Kuwait, where women have only just been allowed to vote, and you can understand why the vast majority of females entering the media industry in the Middle East do so in the UAE. For Whelan, the key to building a wider population of women in Arab media lies in slowly building critical mass: “There are fewer women working so it is not a 50/50 situation. It is a numbers game,” she says. “Seven out of every ten people I meet are men.” An expat who has made a real success of her time in the Middle East is Angela Summers, who until recently worked as a senior account director at the Partnership PR agency. She believes women are an emerging force in the media market. “I think the women’s market is really going to fly here,” she says. “The people who are here already will move into more senior positions.” The fact that magazine publishers are building successful glossy magazines for women is, says Summers, an encouraging sign of the times. “Women’s consumer magazines are changing. This is a new thing,” she says. “Magazines have traditionally been dominated by male subjects like business and motoring.” One woman who has witnessed this first hand is Mandie Gower, editor of ITP Consumer’s Viva, which is about to celebrate its first anniversary. In an editorial team of 12, the magazine has just two men. In a reversal of the usual trend, when Gower was offered her job on Viva, her partner gave up his job in TV to join her. “Men always used to come here for a job and bring their partners,” she says. “At least four women have come here as lead partner. “As the market is growing massively, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a risk. There is more awareness of the exciting things going on in Dubai so women will not see it as such a jump.” Gower sees her role as editor of a women’s magazine as an important one in putting the spotlight on women in the region. And she says she is not afraid of tackling the issues that matter. “Some of the magazines here hadn’t broached the issues that needed tackling. We have done features on single mums, for example. We are trying to respond to this new generation of women,” she says. One group that is conspicuous by its absence from the media world is local Arab women. Arab girls come under pressure from families to get married and set up a family. If they have a career in mind, it is unlikely to be media, with its less than wholesome reputation. Whelan points out that Arabic women study for a particular career, and media does not appear to be high on the agenda right now. That situation, she suggests, is unlikely to change until there are more female role models in the media industry, in the same way that Sheikha Lubna Al Qassimi, the UAE’s minister for economy and planning, provides a timely reminder that women can reach the top of their profession. Yet it can be in the interests of media companies to nurture local talent. Who better than a Saudi Arabian woman to give an insight into what the nation’s families are eating for breakfast, or what they like to drink with their evening meal? Agencies like Promoseven and OMD have addressed this by setting up their own academies to nurture talent, to show young women that there is a career in media for them, but there is a long way to go. OMD’s regional director Elie Khouri says generating local talent is his single biggest mission for this year “In this part of the world there is zero talent,” he says. “I meet people with no skills, who create a poor image of their company.||**||Creating a woman's world|~|Whelan20.jpg|~|On the rise ... Christel Whelan, managing director of 121 Agency|~|The only way to move forward is to capture the young generation, men and women, put them on the right track and keep them well trained.” Fadi Salameh, president of Fortune Promoseven, agrees: “You need local talent. For the past six years we have had a female division in Saudi. They are doing brilliant work because they understand their culture, their customers, much better than any foreigner that we can bring in.” Mukherji says the media industry would benefit from having local female expertise, as no-one is better versed in the local language and culture. “As an industry we haven’t advertised ourselves enough, so it doesn’t seem like an attractive industry to locals,” she says. “Advertising and media just doesn’t seem to be very high in the reckoning.” She also highlights how the long hours culture is not conducive to women with families and children. “Our kind of working is very erratic, with long hours and sometimes working through the night,” she says. So why does she do it? “When I was in marketing I regularly dealt with the ad agency and I figured that they were having much more fun.” Salameh agrees: “Advertising is not a well sought after job. People can get a job where they don’t have to work weekends and all hours of the day.” Amna Khaishgi was, until recently, assistant professor in mass communications at the University of South Queensland in Dubai. But the University was forced to close its doors following a row with its landlord Knowledge Village, leaving more than 100 students stranded midway through their course. She says the number of Arab women studying mass communications remains low, but the situation is slowly improving. However, she is critical of media owners, who she says have treated women like “brainless beauties” who should appear in front of the camera, but never behind it. “Lebanese girls are being treated like Barbie dolls in the TV world. This is the approach that has developed. Local women only seem to get on-camera jobs,” she says. Khaishgi admits that it will be at least another five years before local women are a force to be reckoned with in the media market. “There is a vacuum,” she says. “They just aren’t immersed in the media as a career option. I don’t think people understand what media studies is about. There is a perception that it’s just about being on camera. We have to work on raising the awareness of media as a discipline to study. It’s not just about the glamorous jobs.” There is a long way to go until we see female account planners in Riyadh or agency creative directors in Kuwait. Hundreds of years of culture and tradition cannot be changed overnight. For now, the starting point is to persuade young females that media and advertising is an attractive career option. Then the appropriate training must be put in place. Only then will women like Radha Mukherji become part of the fabric of the media industry, rather than a small minority. ||**||Creating a woman's world|~||~||~|Shawsan Ghanem is managing director of Active PR. She is Jordanian, has lived in Dubai most of her life, except for eight years in the UK, where she completed a degree course. Have you ever encountered sexism in the workplace ? There are times where men of different nationalities have preferred to direct their queries to my male companion at the time. They are uncomfortable dealing with women or asking them for advice, even more so taking advice from them. Do you feel women are under-represented in local media? Why? Speaking as a woman who has been in the media or communications industry for over five years now, I don’t believe so but we can do with more. I think the stigma related to this type of career, from a cultural perspective, among the Arab public is disappearing. This is one of the reasons more women will join our industry. In addition, women are excellent communicators and are ideal for a career in the media. Are there barriers preventing women from reaching senior positions? I don’t believe so. I strongly feel that any ambitious Arab woman who wants to climb the ladder in the business world can do so, as long as she has the right attitude, belief in herself and capabilities and can gain the respect of her colleagues. Is enough being done to encourage local Arab women to follow a media career? I believe that more needs to be done to encourage local and Arab ex-pat women to follow a media career in terms of specialised courses being offered in the region and suitable in-house training programmes in the media and media related organisations. ||**||

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