I’m going to start this article by sharing one of the most infuriating conversations of my life.
A group of friends, myself included, were chatting and sharing stories of sexism. Both men and women were part of this conversation, and the women in the group mostly talked about times they had been spoken over, ignored, called “sweetheart” by male bosses, and the like. Some of the stories were to do with sexual harassment – and in response, one woman said, “ugh, all men suck”. The women nodded, the men looked at their feet. But one friend (a man) came up to me at a later time to express his disgust at the overt “hatred of men”.
“It’s just not helpful to say that ‘all men suck’. It turns men off from the conversation – it makes me not want to hear her. She’s lumping us all together and not all men are like that. I have never done anything like that,” he said.
Yeah, he #NotAllMen’d me. And it turned into an argument. I explained that he’s missing the point entirely. The conversation isn’t about YOU, it’s about her experiences – and those experiences, whatever they are, have led her to form an opinion that men are consistently disappointing, dangerous and yeah, sucky. Many, many women have been sexually harassed and assaulted, and we cannot invalidate their experiences. In fact, we’d all benefit by listening to her, rather than nitpicking at the phrasing. If you’ve never done anything awful like sexually harass someone, well, good. Do you want a f*cking medal? Is the bar really so low? He shook his head, and the entire thing ended with his solution to “agree to disagree” (which I certainly did not agree to.)
The man in question is a creative at a very senior level – and this matters because these are the men who are in charge of selling to women. The same men who front the campaigns with female empowerment slogans and #BossBabe-esque hashtags. The men who bring in millions of dollars based on a “you go girl!” campaign that they don’t actually believe in, but they know it will land them the account.
They’ve figured out how to sell “feminism” back to us, and I hate it.
(A quick disclaimer: I hate that I feel the need to add this in here, but I’ve worked with men long enough to know that the start of this article has probably triggered a few. No, I don’t hate men. Yes, I am a feminist. No, that does not mean I automatically support and agree with ALL women.)
Alright, good. Let’s continue.
Brands make money by telling us how to behave
I don’t know about you, but I despise being told how to behave. Over the years it’s been about how to be ‘feminine’ – stand up straight, be soft, be pretty, have long hair, smile, don’t be confrontational, let it go, boys will be boys.
These days, that doesn’t fly in ad land anymore. These days it’s about being STRONG. Women have to stop apologising! We can do what we want! We can be anything! We can be bossy! Be loud! Dominate! Assert! Win! Inherently, none of these are bad things, of course, but the crux of these campaigns is to “empower” women to change their behaviours, not men. The entire ethos of the “empowerment” movement in advertising, marketing and PR is not about how businesses need to change, or how men should change – but how women must change themselves and be “fixed” to be more like men. Because men are at the top of the food chain, so they must be doing something right. Right?
The brilliant recently-released book Brandsplaining by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts – two women with decades of advertising experience and years of researching industry gender bias – showcases the gaping hole between the messaging that is present in the campaigns around us, and the way women actually are. The book explores how women’s real wants and needs are continually misrepresented, because the industry fails to understand us, still. This quote from the book’s introduction sums it up beautifully:
“While the above-the-surface, plain old sexism may be on the wane, beneath the surface a set of unpronounced biases and assumptions continue to shape the way brands view their female audiences. Moreover, these biases reflect sexism at its most deep-rooted: not the obvious, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face sexual objectification sort, but the hard-wired gendered views that unconsciously determine a world where women are cast as secondary.”
Overt sexism may be dying down, but the “male glance” is on steroids
You may have heard of the male gaze (the act of depicting women as sexual objects for the pleasure of a heterosexual male viewer), but the male glance is perhaps worse. Coined in this article by Lili Loofbourow – and mentioned a few times in Brandsplaining – the male glance is that thing men do when they say they’re listening to you, but they’re actually not. They might be sitting at the same boardroom table, nodding along, ‘letting you’ say your piece, but actually not really trying to understand your point of view at all. Then, they say their piece (which might be what you said, only using different words), or they might talk over you altogether.
I can collectively hear 100% of women around the world gasping in recognition and agreement right now.
The failure to take women’s needs and interests permeates our industry, and it’s in danger of getting even worse as ‘femvertising’ continues to pick up speed. Brands want to appeal to women, but still struggle to add true and ongoing diversity to their campaigns – we’ve recently seen this performative approach after big events like George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, but eventually the status quo resumes. We see it when older women aren’t used for campaigns for fear of alienating younger audiences. We see it when women’s skin, wrinkles and cellulite are retouched, when movies are advertised as “chick flicks” because the protagonist is a woman and there is a romantic storyline, and when advertising campaigns focus on what men think and what women feel.
So, what do we do?
I’m not going to pretend I have an answer here, but I am pretty certain that whatever the solution is, it’s not about women doing more. We’ve already done LOADS. Should it really be our responsibility to continue to fight the bias that persists? There are a few things our industry, men in our industry, and brands can do if they truly do believe in gender equality:
- Stop criticising women and using language that demands perfection. Stop telling us to “defy” ageing and “smooth” things. Step away from utilising pseudoscience to sell to women – because we don’t do it for men (I suppose we assume they’re too clever and won’t catch on?) Consider your language and phrasing and what you’re really saying to women.
- Review what you really know about women, and be prepared to learn. There is no better time than right now – during a global pandemic – to reassess your levels of empathy and humility, and how effective your ability is to really connect with the women in your organisation. How easy is it for women to have their voice heard? Yes, the bulk of the marketing industry workforce are women (in the US and UK) but creative directors and CEOs are more than twice as likely to be men, meaning that it’s still hard for women to have a say at the top. Women are the actual experts in knowing what they want, so maybe actually listen?
- Hold other men accountable. This is how we move on from the “women have to change” approach. ‘Fixing’ women in the name of gender equality simply doesn’t cut it – men have to step up and demand that other men listen, too. Call other men and their macho bullshit out, and instill the policies, processes and employee behaviours that drive a culture of understanding women.
The tools are there, the research has been done, and the women in men’s lives have been constantly telling them what works, what doesn’t, what matters, and what we don’t like. It’s not the job of women to keep educating men or to make you listen to us – but it’s also why things like International Women’s Day have to exist.
Women remain burdened with the responsibility to promote our value, because we’re still being overlooked every step of the way. One day, I hope, our rights and our needs won’t be the subject of a special day that forces everyone to acknowledge them.
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This article first appeared in The Drum.