Are we there yet? Annika Welander on fears of being the 'over-sensitive lesbian'

Every week, we ask industry insiders across all job levels and titles to share personal stories about equality, diversity and inclusion in adland. We know we're not there yet, but we want to document the highs and lows as the industry slowly transforms for the better.

Annika Welander
Managing director and partner

Tell us about one thing that’s happened recently that leads you to believe there’s still a problem.

I’m going to focus on LGBTQ representation within the advertising and marketing industries because 1) I’m a queer woman, and 2) it’s Pride month y’all!

We work with many global apparel brands, so every day is an exercise in negotiating gender norms, subtle institutionalized homophobia, and product design that occasionally smacks of an old-school "shrink it and pink it" mindset.

Much more often than not I’m the only openly queer person at a conference table. I recently attended a meeting where a group of men deemed a product "too gay" for the brand. That night at dinner the same people made a series of comments about their colleague’s "gay" behavior. I didn’t say a thing about it, and if I’m honest with myself, I was concerned that my perceived "political correctness" would hurt the relationship, that I’d be pegged as the over-sensitive lesbian.

This is an overt example of the locker-room behavior that runs rampant in this industry, but its overtness might actually make it the most easy to flag and correct. The moments that are hard to put a finger on -- the boiling of the frog, if you will -- are the daily decisions that reinforce and propagate a parochial and heteronormative worldview. This includes everything from model selection, to product design, to something as innocuous as the "men/women" nav options on every ecomm site. As image creators and storytellers it’s in our power to change the narrative of what’s "normal" and what’s aspirational, but the reality of the volume of consumer touch-points that need to be addressed for a true culture shift can be overwhelming.

How about something that proves we’re making progress?

I am really happy to see the surge and success of disruptive lifestyle brands that have managed to eschew the baggage, constraints, and expectations to which large established brands are often beholden. Wildfang is great. They’ve made gender-fluid clothing available and stylish, and they shoot models of all shapes, sizes, and gender expressions. Milk Makeup celebrates gender fluidity and bleeding-edge aesthetics. Thinx offers innovative solutions to anyone who might experience a period, regardless of gender identity. Refinery 29 collab’d with Getty Images to create a set of high-end stock featuring women with real bodies. The creative directors and marketers working within and on these brands are proving that dismantling the status quo is not only culturally important and emotionally satisfying -- it’s good for the bottom line.

What else needs to be done to get there?

I think we need to acknowledge the grassroots nature of this mission. For every massive WPP/Omnicom/Publicis diversity proclamation, there are a thousand small agencies grinding away on websites, campaigns, and hiring initiatives that need to be conscious of the additive effect they have on culture at large. We need to make sure we are working with people who have the wherewithal to affect real change.

At Someoddpilot we call this "brand action." It’s not about positioning -- it’s about taking a position and standing your ground. This will be hard. You may lose projects, or consumers, or funding, or clients. But at the end of the day, the ills of this industry will need to die by a thousand cuts, not one fatal blow.


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