How much has marketing truly changed for women?
Communicate covers The Marketing Society’s “Global Conversations” monthly webinars, featuring senior marketing leaders from around the world to discuss critical issues for the industry.
This month, sexism in marketing is in the spotlight.
Sophie Devonshire, Chief Executive at The Marketing Society
Sherine Moneim, Strategy Director Beauty and Personal Care, Unilever (North Africa, Middle East, Turkey, and Russia)
Fernando Desouches, Managing Director, New Macho at BBD Perfect Storm
Jane Cunningham, author of Brandsplaining
Has there been a shift in the portrayal of masculinity? And is there more to be done in the way gender identities are depicted? Marketers have both an opportunity and the responsibility to drive change and shift mindsets within the industry and the world.
The shift towards better gender representations has not happened yet
Jane Cunningham. We are often being explained that marketing to women is a problem that has been solved, but in our research, we heard something quite different and a sort of complacency about the need for change. Businesses seem to feel that they sorted out gender inequality with corporate feminism and women empowerment campaigns. These are really well-intentioned efforts but they feel inherently problematic because they both ask women to fix the problem by changing themselves in order to fit in the systems and structures that work against them.
Over the course of the pandemic, the fragility and the shallowness of those answers have risen to the surface. 70% of jobs that are going to get lost will be lost by women and there’s still a 28% gender pay gap in creative agencies. So, we wrote Brandsplaying in part to show the insufficiency and misguidedness of that fixed narrative embedded in empowerment, and in part to help marketing face in a clear-eyed way what its contribution is to keeping women in their place – the overs and sneakier ways that marketing sustains old fashioned ideas about women or ideas that tell women that they’re secondary.
Fernando Desouches. If you don’t relax the masculine that dominates the world today, we cannot get the feminine to arise. We did a survey back in 2014 across ten countries from China, to Indonesia, Brazil, and the US, and we realized that men are performing their masculinity instead of living it. Men are conditioned in two ways: at a very early age, they need to behave in certain ways – they shouldn’t cry, they should man up, fight back – and this comes not only from fathers, but from many mothers. They grow up a bit disconnected, without understanding how they’re really feeling and what that means for them. Second, the definition of a successful guy, a real man is very narrow and quite materialistic. Brand communication sets expectations for men, defining what a successful man is: tough fit, wealthy. Brands can help men understand the journey they are going through, from performing who they are to really be who they are. They need to tell them how to do that. Brands can also start opening up the definition of success, incorporating new values like self-awareness and relationship – values that could be seen as feminine.
Sherine Moneim. While women represent 50% of our total population, only 29% contribute to senior management roles and this percentage goes way lower if we talk about the C suite. We are really slow in driving the change. The issue lies in the unconscious biases that are well rooted in our society and in our culture. Marketing, media, and advertising are contributing to the problem. Even though the role and value of women has seen a massive shift in the last two decades, advertising has failed to keep up and continues to show an outdated portray. 40% of women do not relate to the woman they see in advertising; 80% of women globally say advertising really impacts their self-esteem. This shows the powerful force that marketing and advertising can play in changing perceptions. Brands need to step up and be part of the solution, addressing different societal tensions, to stay relevant culturally and commercially. Sexism holds employees back and channels them in wrong roles based on some unconscious biases, missing out on their full potential and losing a real opportunity in society and the world.
J.C. Marketing pays a huge contribution to the broader cultural script, because so many marketing messages are consumed on a daily basis. There’s this false argument that marketing has to just reflect the way things are, rather than try and change the way things are. In reality, marketing is a long way behind the way women are even now. So, even just catching up would be good, because the aspirations that marketing assumes women have are not the aspirations women actually have. Marketing needs to play the role of servant, making itself useful to women. A big shift needs to happen in marketing, even just to catch up with where women are. Direct consumer brands that are able to reinvent the categories from a product level right up to female representation are showing the way and shining a light on just how behind the curve many of the establishment brands are.
What more can marketing leaders do
J.C. Firstly, just please stop empowering. It’s not working and it’s been exposed as over. Secondly, try and rid yourselves of the belief very deeply rooted into our psyches that female life is a bell curve with marriage and children at the center and everything before is a preparation to achieving that and everything after is a descent into greyness. For most women across the world, the top three aspirations are being independent financially, feeling comfortable in your own skin, and being able to make your own decisions – not securing a good marriage. Almost three quarters of older women say that they don’t see themselves in marketing and this is commercially negligent; they are vast, wealthy, and happy to consumer. Thirdly, listen to women carefully, intently, respectfully. Stop trying to fix women; look at your own category, your own brand and fix the things that you’re doing that work against women. Fourthly, challenge those traditional ideas of masculinity that get played out and that most men aren’t matching anyway. And lastly, stop blaming each other for the problem. Everybody’s complicit and it’s in each of our gifts to try and fix it.
F.D. I would encourage brands to stop making statements about masculinity, about what a man should or shouldn’t be. This is not their role. They can find the emotional spaces to connect with consumers and tell men to go to the next step. Be diverse, not just about race, gender, or abilities. Be diverse in personalities, in values. And lastly, don’t fall into lazy stereotypes and don’t create new ones.
S.M. We can collectively drive the efforts to change the narrative and the perception. For example, in our region, Unilever has become a founding member in the Unstereotyping Alliance, an industry-led initiative convened by the UN Women that unites industry leaders, decision-makers, and creatives to end harmful stereotypes for all genders in advertising. Dove is also changing the narrative, massively. It’s breaking the stereotype of what beauty should and shouldn’t be. It’s about inclusive beauty; it’s about being beautiful in your own skin.
F.D. One of the things we can do is really finding what success is and expanding successful portrayals. For example, in Mexico, Ruffles’ emotional connection space is attraction. And in Mexico today, attraction is a conquering game. So, we transformed this conquering game into a connection game between men and women as equals. And when you act like that, you don’t get any backlash; you can change the corporate positioning for the brand. Talk about it, share your point of view. You are helping people to move where they want to go. They embrace that and find it liberating.
Why taking the right action matters
J.C. Building the business case is very important. If, currently, your audience is overwhelmingly one gender and you want to encourage your company to reach out to another gender, build the business case as to why that might be a good idea. Many categories were very stuck – financial services, technology, cars – and massively oversteered towards the male audience. The ones that have done a really good job of balancing their brand able to speak to both men and women, have had huge success and that have been actually transformed by accommodating different ways of speaking to the target audience, bringing women into the conversation without alienating their current customers.
F.D. Consumers’ needs and expectations are changing faster than ever. Therefore, we can’t only use historical data to take decisions, saying that all of our consumers are men today. Put one foot in the future. Where the world wants to be is where we need to be.
S.M. If we don’t move fast, we will become outdated because consumers have massively shifted and they are requesting us, brands and businesses, to stand for something and to become a force for good; to address real societal problems that we live every day. If we don’t respond very swiftly and very fast, we’ll become outdated and we’ll be speaking to ourselves.
To learn more, watch the full webinar: