Interview with Garvita Khanna: Gender Equity in Advertising and Publishing

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We’re continuing to celebrate women throughout the month of March and beyond. We’re sitting down with the members of TaboolHER, Taboola’s women’s collective, about how they view issues of gender equity in the advertising and publishing industry.

While more women are entering the advertising and publishing industry, progress towards gender parity is agonizingly slow, says Garvita Khanna, Account Director for India and SEA at Taboola.

“There’s a fair bit of representation for women at entry level and middle managerial positions,” she comments, “but the issue women face in all industries is how do they climb the ladder and get career opportunities that lead to leadership roles.”

Khanna is happy to see companies within and beyond the industry recognizing that gender diversity is a priority, and working towards gender parity.

“There is now a commitment to change. Companies are being very transparent when it comes to sharing and publishing their numbers in terms of what the gender gap currently is, which is a positive step.”

Few Women Reach the Top

But Khanna says there are two main issues companies still need to address.

“As a woman, you have fair representation and get promotions early in your career, but even at Taboola, progress becomes super slow, and you become a minority at the top level. That’s what we need to fix.”

The second issue, she says, is incorrect thinking about the recruitment process.

“A lot of organizations believe that hiring a lot of women will solve the gender parity situation, but that’s too simplistic. What actually happens is that there is a leaky bucket. You hire the talent, but don’t have the right kind of inclusive environment that’s conducive to retaining that talent.”

Khanna adds that companies must create an environment “where women feel that they are welcome, they are being heard, they are being valued and they have an equal share of voice.” Get that right, and companies won’t just have a diverse workforce, but a higher retention rate.

Turning to her personal experience, Khanna says that after decades of her predecessors creating awareness and questioning gender stereotypes, it’s been easier for her and others like her to get a foot in the door. But she adds:

“When I think about the next step for me, if I look up, there are fewer women at every rung of that career ladder, which honestly is discouraging.”

Still a Lot of Unconscious Bias

Khanna has noticed that within the industry, there’s a lot of unconscious bias against women.

“It’s so deeply entrenched in this corporate culture that some men don’t even realize that they are marginalizing or undermining a woman. They will interrupt you while you are talking, or explain things to you that you already know.”

She’s also seen this happen frequently on group calls where often the presence of women isn’t even acknowledged, which she puts down to many men being conditioned to working with men.

“Those acts of microaggression shatter your confidence and inhibit your sense of belonging to that team. Ultimately, they will limit your career opportunities.”

To address unconscious bias, says Khanna, companies need to implement systematic, regular training.

“These attitudes are so deeply entrenched that people don’t even realize they exist. And a one-off session is not going to make a difference. You have to have a programmatic approach with periodic workshops aimed at changing behaviors, where you are constantly nudging people in terms of making them aware of the characteristics of an inclusive environment.”

The Importance of Allyship

She notes the importance of having men as allies in the fight for gender equity,

“At Taboola there’s a commitment from our founder Adam Singolda to the overarching goal of diversity and inclusion. Different employee resource groups have been formed, such as Taboola Black and TaboolHER (the company’s first female collective, which aims to empower female leadership). So, there’s intention, but now we need to change to doing.”

Change has to start at the top with having more women in the C-suite and in the boardroom, Khanna believes: “There has to be more representation there, because that’s where the majority of the resources come from and that’s going to drive the cultural change.”

To get to that point, there needs to be formal sponsorship and mentoring of high potential women. With no women senior to her, Khanna was forced to build her own network, but she comments that not every woman will feel comfortable doing that, and many may not even know who to reach out to.

“Women are ambitious, they are willing to grow, but how do we support them in terms of giving them the right kind of networking opportunities, the right kind of mentorship so that they are able to advance in their careers?”

Promoting Leadership Development for Women

That’s why it’s important that TaboolHER is spearheading a mentorship and leadership development program for women.

Khanna is a founding member and leader of the APAC branch of TaboolHER, a responsibility she takes seriously:

“I have been a part of DEI initiatives in my previous organizations and I wanted to attach a bigger purpose to what I am doing and how I am contributing as a female in the workforce beyond my regular roles and responsibilities. We believe that this collective power of women is one that is going to bring about change.”

In addressing gender discrimination, there’s also an element of personal responsibility, Khanna says:

“I feel that the standard that you walk past is the standard you accept, so if I see that there is a bias against women, that there is a micro-aggression happening against my female coworker, it is my responsibility to step up and to point that out because otherwise change is not going to happen. You have to take action, you have to be the change agent and everyone has to be accountable for it.”

Towards Greater Inclusion in Advertising and Publishing

Khanna believes that there are steps the publishing industry can take to be more inclusive in the content it produces.

For example, recruiting more women into the newsroom, and setting goals for editorial teams in terms of balancing the expert sources used for content.

On the advertising front, she says:

“You need to ensure that stories and ads are being created by a diverse talent force, and that you’re portraying men and women the way they really are, rather than reinforcing gender norms. That will make your content more relatable.”

At the end of the day, says Khanna, companies in advertising and publishing need to understand that when you leave women out of the boardroom, senior management and your content, “50% of that voice is not there in the daily narrative that describes your world, and it is an inaccurate depiction of reality.

And if you have that inaccurate depiction of the reality then you are not able to connect with your audiences. You will not be able to build that trust with your audience.”

She concludes that even though gender diversity and parity are good for society, they also make business sense.

“Companies often think of these initiatives as corporate social responsibility (CSR). But they make sense from a commercial viewpoint. If your audience relates to you, if your audience connects with you, then you will have more of that audience, more engagement, more money coming in because your reader base is increasing, your subscriber base is increasing, and more advertisers want to spend with you.”

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