Sexism in advertising gets political

SheSays' director warns against putting the blame of sexism squarely on the shoulders of consumers.

All eyes are on Corbyn and May as they battle it out in the final hours to win the public’s vote. Seeking to make as much of an impact, although admittedly not as much noise, is the Women’s Equality Party. They have a total of seven parliamentary candidates fighting to be the first ever to stand for the Women’s Equality Party in today’s election.

"I don't think the people standing represent the diversity of this country," Sandi Toksvig (pictured, above) said in 2015, in answer to why she had co-founded the party. Noting that over nine million women did not vote in the last election, she added: "we need to attract them."

Of course, the advertising industry is far from perfect when it comes to attracting and keeping its female voices. As Tom Knox, president of the IPA, said: "it remains an uncomfortable truth that men dominate creative departments. This cannot be good for creativity or our ability to solve business problems. Finding ways of keeping [women] will require a sea change in culture and ways of working."

Toksvig believes that the media needs to be at the centre of this change. Women have the right to be taken seriously as human beings, she says, but media coverage is all too often casually reductive; young women are sex objects or victims; older women are cougars, victims or invisible.

Sandi Toksvig on the need for more senior women in advertising from Frank & Lively on Vimeo.

"There has been a change in society. I would say that advertising is a good step behind what is actually happening," said Toksvig at the Creative Equals’ Future Leaders conference earlier this year. "Having more women in senior positions [within advertising] is going to make a difference because at least women’s voices will be at the table. They will say I do not want to be the person with the apron, tied to the oven."

It’s no surprise that it’s all got a bit political. In 2014, the creative industries contributed £84.1bn to the British economy and grew three times faster than the rest of the economy. This may be why Labour has acknowledged that, "if we don’t create a strong pipeline of new skilled talent, our creative industries will suffer."

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has stated that: "if the old maxim is true that advertising only works if people buy what you are selling, then a strong economy has to be the bedrock of a successful advertising industry."

All well and good, but Ali Hanan, Creative Equals founder, argues that we need to take this much further if advertising is to be both representative and effective. She cites statistics which show that 88% of young female creatives say they lack role models, 60% don’t feel they can stay in the industry with a family and 50% of juniors are already considering leaving the industry. As a result: "just 14 of London’s Creative Directors are female, which means that 86% of all ads coming out of the London market are coming from a particular male bias," said Hanan.

While there are certainly more ads capitalising on the ‘empowertising’ trend these days, the fact is that the broad majority of advertising remains stubbornly sexist. In fact, a study by University at Buffalo found that the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades has become increasingly pornified. If ads were to believed, women still belong in the kitchen, but now they need to look hot while they’re there.

The good news is there has been far more debate about the lack of, and the need for, gender diversity in politics, the media and around the board room table. Still, adland as a whole is far too quick to conclude that it ultimately produces what its audiences want, putting the blame of sexism squarely on the shoulders of consumers. Toksvig is having none of that.

"I think it is disingenuous to say that advertisers don’t lead the way. It is not quite right to think they are just following what the public want. I would suggest maybe they would want to have a rethink of that," said Toksvig. "Advertising needs to understand that we need to change the optics of what the public see on a day to day basis. We need to make sure advertising isn’t reflecting something from the 1950’s, rather than the present day."

Marcie MacLellan is founder and head of content for Frank & Lively and a long-standing director with SheSays, a global network for creative women

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