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Is adland's mission for female empowerment having the opposite effect?

It was last year that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced its stricter gender stereotyping rules, with VW and Philadelphia the first brands to fall foul prompting a frenzied discussion about the implications for adland. While many – myself included – were entirely in favour of the principles, most of the debate surrounded their interpretation.

There is little to add to the conversation around the specific adverts; the dust has settled on the Philadelphia conveyor belt. However, in our efforts to avoid the stringent hand of the ASA in future and to continue our well-intentioned quest for female empowerment, I believe we face new risks. Not only are we in danger of promoting new and equally harmful stereotypes but, taken too far, we may dismiss traditional roles that are not only a reality, but an aspiration for many women.

The tyranny of the ‘strong woman’ archetype

It goes without saying that the intention behind the new rules is admirable. We know that stereotypes – gender or otherwise - can determine people’s beliefs about themselves and others and, as the ASA have stated, harmful stereotypes can “[impact] people’s choices, aspirations and opportunities.” However, underpinning the rules (or certainly their subjective interpretation) is a value judgement not only of what is harmful, but equally of what is aspirational.

Strength, success and power are masculine codes; child-rearing, housekeeping and sensitivity are feminine codes. Both sets can be aspirational and both, when used repeatedly for either gender, can be harmful.

As we strive to free women from the stereotypical shackles of their gender, we have started to create a new stereotype; that of the “strong woman”. This extraordinary, glass-ceiling smashing, boardroom-leading, marathon-running paragon of female excellence is fuelling anxiety. Particularly because it is not only attitudes that need to be shifted to help women thrive, but structural and economic systems.

The language of the “strong woman” abounds in advertising and pop culture alike. We encourage our daughters to be “Rebel Girls”, we celebrate films with strong female leads and, of course, our adverts rally women with messages like “Be remarkable”, “Dream Crazier” and “You can be anything”. Each of these is galvanising individually, but the increased prevalence of such rallying cries is starting to feel like an assault on ordinary. It is not enough for us to be, we must represent.

With the pressure to do it all, it’s unsurprising that significantly more women than men are suffering from stress (81% vs. 67%). Meanwhile, young girls are entering the world, cajoled by messages that they can be anything they want to be and are feeling overwhelming pressure as a result. Treatments for anxiety amongst children and teenagers in 2017-18 were almost double that of the previous year, with 88% coming from girls. Sadder still, in a period where we have never been more aware of women’s potential, the number of girls aged 7-21 saying they’re “very happy” has almost halved over the last decade, with just 25% identifying as very happy.

Returning to the ASA’s concerns about “harmful” stereotypes, it is interesting they caution against suggesting that an individual’s happiness should depend on conforming to an idealised gender-stereotypical physical appearance, yet no such rule exists to prevent us from linking an individual’s happiness to an idealised intellectual or career-related pursuit.

Naturally, this is not a female-gendered stereotype, but is over-valorising women’s professional success and entrenching the pressure to ‘have it all’ not just as harmful?

As Times journalist India Knight asserted, “I don’t stay up at night wanting my daughter to be a CEO. I stay up wanting her to be happy.”

If she mustn’t see it, she shouldn’t be it?

The second risk of taking the guidelines too far is that we start to neglect and belittle women who occupy traditionally gendered roles.

Too often the battle for female empowerment focuses primarily on women’s individual success in the public realm of work. By contrast, family life is not only relegated in importance, but often associated with the suppression of women’s freedom. However, as David Goodhart points out in his 2017 book A Road to Somewhere, “The focus on career equality and the downplaying of the private sphere reflects more the interests of middle-class women who work full-time”.

This critique could also be levelled against the new stereotypes and messages pushed out in adland. Adding fuel to the “filter bubble” fire, Reach Solution’s The Empathy Delusion report shows that people in advertising and those in the mainstream tend to have different “moral foundations” and intuitions about what is right and wrong. This has led to a disconnect and a lack of empathy for mainstream views, as we view things through our WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) biases.

It is telling, for instance, that just 28% of advertising professionals agree that men and women have different roles to play in society, compared to a heftier 40% of mainstream audiences. However, both groups share “a focus on fairness and preventing harm”. In other words, our desire for equality is the same; where we differ is on what that looks like.

Of course, we have a responsibility to advance the empowerment agenda and promote progressive characters. However, we need to ensure that in doing so, we don’t marginalise women who define their success in the private realm. If we continue to favour the “strong woman” archetype, at best, we will project images of a supposed elite that lack relevance; at worst, we may effect a symbolic erasure of traditional (yet empowered) women in advertising.

I whole-heartedly support the notion that “If she can see it, then she can be it”. However, in guarding against traditional gendered roles we are in danger of projecting the message that “Because she mustn’t see it, she shouldn’t be it”.

A plea for nuance

In assessing how we move forward, it is worth remembering that the definition of a stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular person or thing”. Within the confines of advertising media, it is all too easy to resort to shortcuts and heuristics to quickly convey ideas. Whether gendered or not, these oversimplifications and repeated tropes undoubtedly have the potential to cause harm. To right wrongs, we often lead with extremes. Instead, we should strive for variety, for complexity, for female characters that can just be, rather than represent. To paraphrase The Guardian journalist Barbara Essen, in the fight for gender equality the first casualty is so often nuance.

Laura Sammarco is senior strategist at Engine UK.

This piece is one of a series generated as part of the IPA Excellence Diploma course for 2019. The course was supported by The Drum's editorial team to help develop the writing skills of the students taking part to help them learn to pitch and write effectively for an audience of their peers.

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