Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Digital Women: Sana Khalil, Executive Director, Digital, at OMD EMEA on inequality, quiet quitting and more

Sana Khalil joined OMD EMEA in 2015, bringing 13 years of experience in media across client leadership, account management, media planning and digital marketing. Extremely passionate about driving digital growth through result-oriented brand and performance campaigns, she has worked with brands including Hilton, Trip Advisor, Liberty Global, MUFG, Tourism Ireland, Levi’s and Mercedes.

Here, Khalil addresses the ‘quiet quitting’ phenomenon, shares her experiences from the perspectives of an employee and team leader, and identifies opportunities for nurturing talent and driving learning…

In what key ways does gender inequality still exist in the media industry?

Over the past few years, the media industry has been evolving rapidly to create roles and opportunities for women more than ever before. Having said that, I believe there are still a few key areas that need attention to close the gender inequality gap further.

While you can find a higher concentration of women in junior roles bridging the gender divide, there is still a major gap in senior digital leadership, where male dominance is still very strong. 

I read on Tech crunch that study shows 73% of female digital professionals believe the industry isn’t representative, and to aid that with personal experience being a digital female leader I have sat in numerous meetings & calls where I am one of the few or the only woman attending.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop at gender and ever more divides exist when it comes to race, colour & diversity. Being a woman of colour with a diverse background I have had to work twice as hard to prove my worth as my male counterparts and had to overcome many obstacle & barriers to climb the ladder. We need more diverse leadership teams to bridge inequality. 

The gender pay-gap is another area that is still prevailing in many sectors including media. Although this gap is narrowing. women in executive positions still earn between 8% and 25% less than male executives in comparable positions. Like I mentioned above, there are fewer female leaders than males in most businesses, but even those at senior positions are often paid less than their male counterparts.

Companies need to evaluate their promotion criteria; women are more likely to hold lower-paid leadership positions. To combat this agencies need to welcome women at all levels of leadership. 

Leadership today has a responsibility to push for and maintain diverse pools for promotions and new hires. Beyond that, businesses have a duty to pay their employees equally, regardless of gender.

I personally believe the general mindset in the media digital industry is another barrier, where women are restricted to test their full potential. This is more due to behavioural conditioning, where generally women over the years were made to believe they are not as tech savvy. This also has to do with lack of opportunities for training, upskilling & general exposure. I was one of them till I took a digital role to realise that this was just a societal mindset I had acquired. I also see this in younger women apprehensive to join digital roles.

Do the challenges facing women change much as you rise up the ladder?

As women rise the ladder and start to push through in senior leadership positions, while still facing challenges like unequal pay, there are several added challenges/pressures that they face.

These include unconscious bias, leading to lack of equal opportunities and mentorship. This relates to the general mindset issues I was referring to earlier – unconscious bias can be felt in several ways from gender stereotypes to subconscious attitudes about women’s capabilities. This can also manifest around how women choose to dress, act & speak. 

The New York Times published research that showed such biases can make it way more difficult and slower for women to climb to executive positions than men. When looking at Career progression I don’t believe there is equality in opportunities. A 2021 study from Yale found women are 14% less likely to be promoted at their companies every year. Research continually indicates women are more likely to be passed up for promotions. Specially from mid-level positions to senior/leadership roles – they are more often going to male candidates and majority of times women are less likely to even know about these open opportunities. 

Women today need strong leadership mentors and training. Mentors can help identify opportunities and cultivate a mindset to strive and keep individuals motivated and have a voice. Women leaders often face varying expectations then their male colleagues. Research from diversity reveals that women are more likely to report feeling forced to overcome gender related cultural expectation, predefined biases & also balance respect with likeability.

Worldwide research published in Forbes indicated that women are taken less seriously as leaders in comparison to the opposite gender counterparts. There is a lack of equal opportunities for authoritative roles and women continuously strive towards breaking barriers of lower expectations for their career advancement. This directly impacts work/life balance which creates unfair pressures. Leaders today need to give women adequate opportunities to prove themselves as leaders without such added pressures.

Is the ‘quiet quitting’ phenomenon among women in part a reaction to gender inequality at work? 

Even though Gen Z is mastering the art of quiet quitting, not all women and people of colour generally have the luxury to apply this phenomenon. They have the highest level of burnout. Women of colour are even more prone to feeling burnt out, according to Deloitte’s 2022 Women at Work survey

Having said that I believe there are two categories – women who are quiet quitting out of retaliation and have burnt out trying to prove themselves ( there are so many heart wrenching stories on the net that women have shared) and women who don’t have the luxury to quiet quit due to all the pressures we discussed above – when women are already 14% less likely to be promoted than men. Unfortunately, in either case women suffer either further setbacks in advancing in their career or having such high levels of burnout trying to prove their worth.

What more can women do to support each other in the workplace? 

You can foster your community, create networking opportunities and become a mentor. Foster the feeling of togetherness, little chats can lead to team building and gaining trust which is beneficial for the longer term. Beyond that find appropriate networking opportunities so they can flourish.

As women rise in ranks, they should take younger women under their wings – what is good power without a purpose? Nurture and train for a better world in the future. The world is changing, it doesn’t need to be as hard for our upcoming generations. So have a voice & contribute towards that change.

Empathy is key – normalise domestic requirements. Create a culture of empathy – normalise women having higher domestic responsibilities. Maternity leave, child illness, miscarriages, etc unfortunately women are also balancing all this while trying to endlessly prove themselves at an equal level as their male counterparts. We must elevate and celebrate each other, support each other openly, praise good ideas and celebrate achievements – given credit where it’s due.  Success lies in elevating each other and helping overcome obstacles instead of creating them.

Make sure our voices are heard. Encourage each other to sit at the forefront in meetings, have a voice and have more airtime in group discussions. There is no wrong or right question, idea or answer so women shouldn’t shy away from having a voice.

How can men show allyship with their female colleagues?

More and more men have started to become alleys in the recent years. They have started to have a bigger voice to support women eliminate this gender divide. Things that men can do to help include:

  • Call out inequality instead of being apathetic bystanders. 
  • Give credit where it’s due and actively address unconscious bias.
  • Let women have a voice and help overcome presumptive connotations. Men are more accepting of women’s feedback and don’t get as defensive if a woman fairly calls them out.
  • Advocate for women at work having equal opportunities and help normalise the attitude that domestic responsibilities should not be a barrier in women progression.

Are you optimistic about the future for women in your industry?

Yes, extremely optimistic – women aren’t settling for roles and positions where efforts go unrecognised. Women have a bigger voice than ever and there are some great leaders advocating for equality in the digital industry. With gender pay gaps reducing andmore women in senior leadership roles, it’s only going to get better from here onwards.

Women are more conscious than ever and are making better decisions – there are still a lot of barriers to overcome, but the revolution has started and there is no going back!

What does the media industry need to do to attract the next generation of talent?

Embrace diversity and inclusion at its forefront – Gen Z is a lot more conscious of equal opportunities and this is very important to them. Invest in training and development. Younger generations are highly ambitious and entrepreneurial. They have a hunger to learn and grow very quickly. We must remember these are kids whose attention span has been reduced to 3 to 8 seconds with the evolution on social media. We need to keep busy and interested.

We need to prioritise well-being and offer flexibility. The post-pandemic world is very conscious about mental health, work life balance and remote working. A Bloomberg survey revealed that nearly half of millennials and Gen Z employees would consider quitting if their job wasn’t flexible about remote work.

Last but not the least, keep the human touch – let your team know they will be valued & compensated fairly for their handwork, talent and contribution.