#MeToo and the Middle East’s media sector – what changed?

We’re a couple of days out from International Women’s Day, the time of year when we all look to gender equality. But I want to get the conversation started now, and on a different issue. A couple of events have gotten me thinking about the issue how women are treated in the media and marketing sectors in our region.

The first was a very brave article by former journalist Reem Abdellatif. Reem is no longer based in the Gulf (and I’ll get to why this is important in a minute) and she penned an op-ed on sexual harassment and assault for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper (if you’re not subscribed to Haaretz, you should be – often the reporting on the Gulf is better than what you’ll see from newspapers in the Gulf).

Reem’s piece is both general and personal, and Reem details her own stories of abuse. Chillingly, she describes one experience of an uninvited sexual proposition by a journalist in Dubai. It’s a story I feel many women here will be able to relate to. I’m sharing a specific piece from that story below.

Some of you may have noticed that I referred to Reem as having been based in the Gulf. She wouldn’t have been able to publish this account if she were still based here. And no media outlet would carry it, even if she weren’t based here. This is due to the region’s defamation laws, which are criminal offenses. And that brings me to my second reminder. Which I can’t even talk about, despite the seriousness of the sexual harassment allegations being made and the fact that everyone would know the organization.

And that for me is the core of the issue. In the Gulf, we can’t talk about sexual harassment, except in broad brushstrokes which have less meaning. The perpetrators get off, scot free, with little impact on their careers or their reputations. While the victims have to live with the abuse for the remainder of their lives.

If the media and marketing industry is serious about tackling gender equality, they’ve got to start with this. And that doesn’t mean making a statement about the issue of gender equality in the company, talking about the need for purpose in communications or bringing in a female head for a couple of years. Rather, it means rooting out the issue of abuse and harassment. What we have to do must include:

  • Trainings on sexual harassment and gender bias at the workplace, for all staff (most especially management);
  • Proper investigations into sexual harassment allegations, including with the authorities – these are criminal offenses, and should be treated as such, and
  • Anyone found guilty of sexual harassment should be blacklisted from agency groups, and future employers should specifically ask about this question when asking for references.

These are the basic steps the industry must take to address the issue. For all the talk about equality and opportunity, if women don’t feel safe in our industry then we’re not going to make any progress on these other issues. Who’s with me?

Breaking Taboos – the issue of Sexual Discrimination in the Middle East’s Marcomms Industry

The #MeToo movement has rarely been discussed in the Middle East. It’s time we start talking seriously about sexual harassment in the region, especially in the marcomms industry (image source: http://www.alaraby.co.uk)

For all the impact that the online social movement #MeToo has brought to much of the world, there’s been little public talk of the challenges that women in the Middle East face when it comes to sexual discrimination. That changed this month, when ArabAd’s Iain Akerman published a piece detailing a recent case of allegations of sexual harassment at one global agency in the UAE.

The article is a must-read for all of us who work in marketing and communications (I was dismayed by a point of view shared by Ricarda Ruecker, vice-president of leadership and organisation development at MCN, that women could be to blame for any harassment they suffer due to their dress or behavior).

I want to applaud Iain and ArabAd for taking on this issue. The allegations are well known in Dubai, but they haven’t been published till now due to the nature of local defamation laws and the understandable reluctance of those women involved to talk about their ordeal publicly. Iain and ArabAd have taken a risk in publishing this piece.

Sadly, there’s so little straight talk on what women here have to deal with in the workplace. There’s lots of PR from certain quarters about the importance placed on women’s rights in certain parts of the region. And yet, I can’t help but ask one question; how does all the talk translate into action? Are companies asked, for example, to published pay scales for their male and female staff, as is now the case in Europe. The answer is no. Do we have enough female management in the industry? My answer would be not enough. And do women in the industry feel that they’re protected from harassment? I don’t feel that they do.

Small steps are being made when it comes to gender parity in the region’s marketing and communications industry. A group that I’m part of, the Advertising Business Group, is pushing to tackle gender stereotypes in the region’s advertising space. But it’s obvious that we need to do more. I’d argue that industry associations should play a larger role in talking about the issue and affording support to female members and organizations on both listening to their concerns in the case of the former, and helping put in place zero-tolerance policies for all types of harassment.

Ultimately, each and every one of us should not only pledge to fight discrimination and harassment, but we should also support anyone who feels that they have been wronged. Nothing justifies¬†discrimination and harassment, and it’s time we started talking more about the issue openly and honestly.