Long Read: Ahead of International Women's Day, meet the PR women leaders who are challenging stereotypes

Misbah Quadri

"The next time when a team of PR professionals walk in, the client should not instinctively gravitate towards the male team member, assuming he leads the team; let it be the woman who is the boss, be the boss."

 Misbah Quadri, is very much a leader in her role as founder & CEO, Monofys Media. Yet, she says, the approach above is still alive, the patriarchy intact.

Tarunjeet Rattan

Tarunjeet Rattan, managing partner, Nucleus PR shares candidly, "I thought we were so done with this stereotype. However, very recently, I had the head of a large corporation in the finance sector call my firm in for a meeting where I had a male colleague join me for it. 

While the strategy was discussed with me, the moment it came to finances on the account or a detailed discussion on the services they handle, the CEO turned to my male colleague and addressed him. As they tried to muddle the conversation with % hikes, growth rates and discounts I did my calculations and watched with amusement. My male colleague interrupted them mid-way and directed them back to me saying, “she is the decision maker and will take a call”. Much to their surprise."

"I still cannot believe in this day and age such a silly stereotype exists even amongst the younger CEOs. One should run a successful business. That is the best way to counter such silly stereotypes", says Rattan.
Upasna Dash

Upasna Dash, Founder & CEO of Jajabor Brand Consultancy, says, "The way to mitigate this stereotype is pretty straightforward- wrap yourself around a truly tangible impact on-ground. Let that impact do all the talking."

Dash adds that, "I am most inspired by blue-collared women, for instance, our office admin staff, she's been one of the most diligent women I have come across in my career. She unwaveringly works, with the aim of supporting her house, her children. Despite a lack of formal education, she’s at par with all the rest of the employees in the workplace."

PR traditionally, has a majority of women professionals and now increasingly women in key leadership positions. Donna Imperato, CEO at BCW Global for example. Other women in PR pioneers are Betsy Plank, Belle Moskowitz, and Ida B. Wells.

In India, Prema Sagar is a well known pioneer of the PR business in India and among the first home grown PR firms, then Genesis PR, to enter into an international partnership and merger. (Now Genesis BCW).

There are an increasing number of women leaders both agency and brand side, even if you look at it anecdotally. In the last two years, Women in PR, the India chapter and WICCI - Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s Public Relations and Digital Marketing Council have both rolled out mentoring programmes and initiatives to nurture women leader.

Yet, the stereotypes persist. And for women, it's a double stereotype, one about women in PR itself and then about women leaders.

Tuhina Pandey, communications leader, IBM Global Digital Sales and India & South Asia says that another big misconception is that, "Women in PR are extroverts: It’s revealing that many of the accomplished PR leaders are, in fact, introverts, and that does not hinder their way into achieving, even outperforming their goals.

Pandey says her preferred approach to fighting prejudice is with, "Regular conversations, discussions with examples. This can go a long way in creating a safe environment for leaders to embrace their unique styles without the judgment glare."

Pooja Trehan

Pooja Trehan,director, marketing communications, SugarBox Networks recommends that the way to breaking stereotypes is to, "Voice our actions. Simply showcase the time and effort we women put in to maintain that "unknown" and "non-existential" work-home balance. Eventually, our aspirations mean we work harder than ever, even if there is a village to support. So, we need to start conversations informing everybody of what our time away from home yields. This needs awareness and education for people who are often condescending towards women aiming to building careers."

Sonia Sarin, head of group – corporate communications of a leading utility brand agrees that, "The majority of women deal with stereotypes in the profession of PR i.e. gender playing an essential role in management positions, leadership style, discipline, character, pay scale etc. In fact, there have been additional assumptions and perceptions about the role of women in the profession

In most cases, some common gender biases and assumptions have been that women are not tough enough for corporate setup as they have additional household responsibilities. This often creates a barrier to their career growth and promotion to leadership positions. For example, I have worked in a sector like Financial PR, which was said to be for men only in the initial years of my career. It wasn't easy to work in a male-dominated organisation as people had preconceived notions about women and the sectors they could handle."

However, Sarin points to change for the better saying, "The sector has immensely evolved over these years. We see women coming forth, taking up the charge of large brands and organisations as CEOs worldwide. Hence, I feel ambitious women should be further encouraged to be multi-taskers. 

We have been raised to manage multiple errands and as taught to simultaneously manage roles as team leaders, multiple clients/verticals, and household responsibilities. Along with strategic thinking and investments, there is a need for the PR community to encourage more women to be a part of the industry to build meaningful relationships as that comes naturally to women."

Priya Bendre

Priya Bendre, AGM-corporate communications, Fortis Healthcare & member of WICCI PR & Digital Marketing Council says, "A stereotype that women cannot read the bottom line, and hence cannot build and sustain a business by fuelling its revenue pipeline has been commonly seen in the business of PR, as with other industries.

This is untrue, women who lead agencies, brands, and corporates possess astute knowledge about business drivers and take progressive steps to ensure that deliverables through new and traditional means are met. For those who would need a little more hand holding on financial aspects of the business, mentoring, upskilling and cross-functional training is key."

Bendre also believes, "Building a self-accountable team that is responsible for its own bottom line, which streams into the company’s revenue should be the key – making a CEO of each team. Hosting cross-functional training to empower women on financial, administrative, and other key aspects of driving business is imperative, alongside having sponsors within the organization who would propel growth. Nurturing early CEOs will help build a well-rounded employee, and lays the ground for a future leader."

Valerie Pinto

Valerie Pinto, CEO, Weber Shandwick India, shared, “ There will always be stereotypes and assumptions that follow any leader. Women leaders are no exception. There are many unconscious biases that keep women away from leadership positions. One needs both formal structures and supporting workplace to encourage robust women leaders in an organization. 

The way we are approaching it is two-pronged. Apart from having supportive and inclusive employee policies in place to set the framework for gender diversity, it's also important to provide an engaging platform to work on the unconscious bias that creeps in.

This is why, we recently initiated an internal employee engagement initiative #myHAPPYmoment which aimed at encouraging employees to share their talent & side hustles beyond work. As people openly shared their challenges, hobbies to cope with stress & maintain work-life balance , this helped create an environment to understand each other."

She further added, “I completely adore purpose-driven leaders like Indira Nooyi. I think women leaders are amazing and inspiring. They motivate each other, each one of them motivates me personally.”

Parity in Pay

Pragya Misra

Pragya Misra, director-public affairs, Truecaller says, "It is great that there has been rising intolerance towards gender biases in the recent past as gender diversity has become a key topic across industries.

More diversity in the leadership promotes an inclusive workplace and a culture that is accepting of everyone as they are - their authentic selves. Whether that is fair representation of gender, race, socio-economic, religion and much more. I believe this is a top down approach that begins with investors, board members, CEOs, VPs and then it becomes the DNA of the company."

Misra adds,"I am a big advocate for gender pay parity. On this women's day let's work towards creating an equitable workplace by being more collaborative, asking for what we want and most importantly being an ally to other women." 
Akshita Agrawal

Akshita Agrawal, senior communications manager, Magicbricks agrees that, "One of the stereotypes I was warned of was gender pay gap, but my family always empowered me to break it by focusing on the value I brought to the table. I was never curious about how much who earned and just focused on my own growth and success."

Agrawal adds, "What did, however, amaze me was the regular comments like "PR comes naturally to women" because that undermined the behind-the-scenes efforts to research, learn and implement. I would spend time after-hours, learning about the industry, do my research and go well prepared to a meeting, only to hear such casual remarks. Ironically, the other stereotype was that women may not be able to handle technology PR, as they won't understand technology. The only way to bounce forward is to focus on your work and upskill yourself."

Traditional gender role perceptions 

And then there is the strong bias that women with children cannot devote the necessary time to work as leaders.

Mou Chakravorty

Mou Chakravorty, associate director, marketing communications,Deloitte India and  member of WICCI PR and Digital Marketing Council agrees that, "One of the biggest stereotypes about women leaders is that they can’t be productive when they have critical life-changing moments like motherhood. 

There is a huge resistance to hiring a young and promising woman who has just got married and often personal boundaries are seen to be surpassed during interviews when questions like ‘what are your family plans’ or ‘plans about kids’ are asked."

Kavita Lakhani

 Kavita Lakhani, director-operations, Weber Shandwick & national president, WICCI PR & Digital Marketing Council concurs that, "I hear pretty often that when a woman gets married or has a child, her priorities change completely. She can’t be entrusted with critical professional assignments (especially which require travel or long hours at work). Most likely she is no longer ‘leader material’. She may also cease to stay in the organisation or in her career for long. Nothing could be farther from the truth!"
In order to change this thought process, of course education and awareness is key as is mentoring for women leaders on how to balance family and work. 

Lakhani adds, "My advice to employers - marriage and babies are just life stages. Women are natural multitaskers and well capable of juggling their personal and professional lives, if they choose to. #Balancedleadership is good for business. Don’t write off women. Instead create enabling environments and we will all be better for it.

My advice to women - Dream unapologetically. Dream fearlessly. Dream big. Work hard and go for it! The only limits that exist are the ones that are in your minds."

Cheryl D'souza

Cheryl D’souza Waldiya, GM – corporate communications, K Raheja Corp shares her encounter with sexism, " Imet a male friend from the finance background, for coffee recently, just as he was wrapping an interview with a prospective candidate. And as the lady left, he said, “She’s good in communications, not so solid in strategy, maybe perfect for PR.” What ensued was a heated dialogue on generalising, but…

The gendered stereotype that women in PR, even as leaders, are good communicators holds women in good stead, but devalues other skills like critical
thinking, strategy, innovation, decisiveness, leadership etc. Add to that, shows
like Sex in the City’s with its repeat runs of Samantha Jones with her quirks as a
PR professional, has left a lasting impression doing only dis-service to the
women leaders in PR."

Quadri shares that, "I remember, a male colleague had once remarked, seemingly as a joke – “You are here only to add the glamour quotient. Leave the real deal to us,” ending the statement with a throaty laughter, that echoed in my ears for many, many years, after the incident had originally occurred.

Such casual sexism is deeply damaging, especially for young women, starting off in their respective careers. Find better jokes.

I really think it's high time this dumbing down of women in PR– women, who invest conscientious effort, intelligent reasoning, constructive counseling leading to astute maneuvering of a brand’s public image - came to a permanent stop."

To this, Chakravorty adds another suggestion, "Create an environment of introducing male allies who can become advocates of bringing in change at the workplace as well as their own homes. When we advocate change, it can’t be achieved one way and needs to be holistic."

Neha K Bisht

Neha K Bisht, founder and CEO at Blue Buzz shares that, "If we want to break the bias, we will have to start with the smallest step, at the lowest level. From recruiting talented people to offering projects and other opportunities, inclusivity has to be ensured at every step.There are very few women entrepreneurs in India. The numbers are rising, but we still have a long way to go. 

For many women, even when they manage to break barriers, it becomes tough for them to sustain the business in the long run due to lack of family and professional support. This is why it’s very important to build your own professional network comprising people who you can always turn to in moments of stagnancy. The network, consisting of women and men, will support, encourage and inspire you in the toughest of times."

Preeti Binoy

Preeti Binoy, head – corporate communications and government affairs - Kimberly - Clark (India) and WICCI Public Relations & Digital Marketing Council Member says, "While there has been a considerable paradigm shift in people’s perceptions and acceptance of women in leadership roles, women professionals are able to flourish and pursue their professional dream in a more supportive environment. I would love to do my bit here by helping advance Women in the Public Relations Industry through Mentorship, and Seek out effective, successful practices to help women advance so that the future of the PR industry clearly includes many female leaders."

Who do you admire?

Sarin says a PR woman leader she admires is, "Inez Kaiser - the first African-American woman to run a PR firm. Her, most admiring characteristic was being honest and passionate. Reading about the incident on how she won the trust of a well-known beverage brand is something most PR professionals should learn from. She always chose honesty over convenience throughout her career. This further helped her develop personal relationships with clients, and our industry is moving based on outstanding professional networks."

Pandey says that, "I am quite the fan of some of our women political leaders, who are ambitious to lead communities and are constantly challenging the glass ceiling, I also admire their resilience and the ability to work through the public glare and judgment, which often gets personal."

Chakravorty admires, "Leena Nair, CEO of Chanel now and ex-Chief Human Resource Officer of Unilever, is a leader I absolutely admire. The sheer courage to traverse the path that she chose, to break so many glass ceilings fighting and defining her success is truly an inspiration.

Leena not only grew herself but has also created a collective community of women who together did many leadership counselling sessions at Unilever, but her journey from Kolhapur to London challenging all the hurdles must have been tough.

Chakravorty has followed her sessions over LinkedIn and Nair's  mantra to spark ‘human-centricity’ in business is a principle that she strongly relates.

Quadri is, "In awe of women who pull life by the lapels, know how to deal with the toughest of situations on their own terms, on their funds and in their own style. I think Frida Kahlo was one such eccentric, supremely skilled, unapologetic, unfazed woman."

Bendre says, "I admire Ms. Rachana Panda, country group head, communication and public affairs and sustainability for Bayer South Asia, greatly. She is my mentor & I look up to her in more ways than one; she’s worked diligently and with vision, perseverance, empathy & passion to earn her place on the board. An alumnus of Harvard Business School, she firmly believes in building a women-empowered culture; she’s groomed many women like me to become future leaders."

D' Souza  says, "For me it is Jacinda Arden, the prime minister of New Zealand.
She has studied PR along with politics at university, which makes her intensely
aware of how she is perceived.What’s stuck most with me, were her pictures making history as the first world leader attending the UN General Assembly with her 3-month-old baby in tow. This, after giving birth when holding office. It showcased her commitment levels and exceptional ability to multi-task."

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