Brands must understand sexism before wading in

Brands and sexism: JWT's Rachel Pashley argues brands need to fully understand feminism before wading in
Brands and sexism: JWT's Rachel Pashley argues brands need to fully understand feminism before wading in

Responding to Marketing's article 'Can brands fight sexism or merely dabble in tokenism?', JWT's global planning director, Rachel Pashley, argues that creative thinking will win over campaigning.

Recently the question was posed - ‘can brands fight sexism or merely dabble in tokenism?’ a question no doubt many of us wrestle with, so let me offer a response.

Firstly, let me say this, as a woman, when I hear of Roosh V and his neo-masculinity movement, it’s at those moments I’m utterly convinced feminism should be a combat sport.

Yet I can’t help but wince at the idea of brands ‘fighting’ sexism.

Firstly if we’re going to ‘fight’ sexism we need to be very sure as to what sexism is, and just as Tina Fey didn’t want a grey-faced man with a ‘bad haircut’ to lecture her on the definition of rape, as an industry can we be 100% sure we all understand what sexism is - because at times we pick the wrong battles, and we have the pugilistic accuracy of a drunk in a bar.

All power to Protein World’s customers

For all those dissenters of the Protein World Campaign, it sold a lot of product - £1m in four days, because there is a growing cohort of women who express their power through their physicality - ever heard of the ‘Revenge Body’? For them, femininity or beauty is not passive and fragile, but muscular and powerful, and I say all power to them - who am I to judge, and whilst you won’t find me at the bench press, I do not feel oppressed when presented with the image of a woman with a six pack.

The problem is all too often we rush into the idea of picking a cause to ‘fight’, but my cause may not be your cause, and all too quickly and unwittingly we create one script for what feminism is, or isn’t - a club you’re either ‘in’ or not.

We agonise over whether little girls should play with Barbie, or if we should let them wear pink or not, when from our own research over 70% of women in the UK think Barbie gets an unjustifiably bad rap.

Feminism is about choice, and freedom, ensuring women can fulfil their full potential and pursue their goals and dreams without being constrained by gender, it’s not about what women and girls ‘should’ do but about what they ‘could’ do, what they want to do.

Encourage real role models, not slogans

In furthering in the cause of  feminism, it’s less about ‘fighting’ oppression and more about celebrating female achievement and embracing women’s diversity, to put forward female role models.

To quote the Geena Davis Foundation on Gender in Media, ‘if she can see it, she can be it’. Essentially, promoting role models can be game changing - far beyond a ‘campaign’ or cause, and from our own research we see their cultural impact.

For example, whilst in the West we agonise over the lack of women and girls pursuing STEM, we make the lazy assumption that girls are just not naturally interested in STEM. Hurrah! A cause to go to battle, and so our solution is to ‘feminise it’ in some way, and enter stage left, IBM’s ‘hack a hairdryer’ challenge. Yes, a hairdryer.

Meanwhile, over in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, up to 60% of STEM graduates are female - want to know why? Because the cultural laws necessitate female teachers, providing female role models, and therefore providing young girls with the idea that a career in STEM is possible and desirable.

With women globally wishing they’d seen more female role models growing up as inspiration, there is a growing demand for exposure to more stories of inspirational and empowered women - because as we witness, it can make a real difference to life choices over and above a poorly aimed ‘cause’.

Wake up to female capital

If we want to challenge sexism, arguably the first step for marketers is to truly understand the way in which we view the sexes, and to wake up to the idea of women’s potential or ‘Female Capital’ in the world, not just as homemakers, or consumers but as wealth creators, inventors, and pioneers and leaders.

Over the next decade, women will wield enormous influence over politics, sport, business and society, it’s an audience we can no longer ignore, but more importantly we need to recalibrate the way in which we perceive femininity, less a weakness or pejorative, more of a strength and something to be valued, translating into fiscal value as the economic benefits of women in leadership becomes even more apparent.

After all, if you want your movie to earn up to 30% more at the box office, hire a leading lady: this becomes a more sustainable ‘argument’ against sexism, and based on women’s value, not their supposed weaknesses.

What can marketers do?

So making the transition from philosophy to the practical, can we as marketers do anything except sit idly by?

I’d argue that if advertising is part of culture, then we have permission if not a responsibility to do something to shape and change culture: consider the way in which our messaging can permeate the consciousness.

In fact advertising has a long legacy of shaping culture, from encouraging women into the workforce during successive world wars, to supporting the civil rights movement, we can be part of shaping the conversation.

And we don’t need a soapbox and a megaphone to do this, put down the placard, pick up the casting call - look at the gender roles and stereotypes you push out into culture, and ask yourself - should the hero be male or could it be a woman? Must all parenting roles be female - or would the idea of a stay-at-home Dad present to the world and normalise what is already happening? Because, marketers, lay down your arms, the creative pen may be mightier than the sword - winning the ‘sexism battle’ may be easier than we think.

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