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How brands can play a role in raising up the next generation of female icons

Stickers featuring women role models such as Kamala Harris have amassed upwards of 22.5m views each

In a bid to celebrate local women in Singapore as part of International Women’s Day 2021, gender advocacy group Aware and BBH created a campaign that paid tribute to Singapore women by turning them into 'social' icons on social media.

The campaign was created after research conducted by BBH that revealed that only one in ten Singapore women have a Singapore woman icon, with the vast majority of Singapore women picking a celebrity from the west, including Michelle Obama, Gal Gadot and Ariana Grande.

Kelly Leow, the communications manager at Aware is not surprised by the findings, noting that women’s experiences and histories are often marginalised and forgotten. She says this happens everywhere around the world, but particularly in Singapore, local women’s histories often seem to be left out of mainstream narratives.

For example, during Singapore’s Bicentennial year, Aware’s president Margaret Thomas wrote a letter to The Straits Times pointing out that four statues of men were installed next to the statue of Raffles at the Singapore river (Sang Nila Utama, Tan Tock Seng, Munshi Abdullah and Naraina Pillai), but no women.

“There is a wealth of fascinating stories in local women’s history, that most people in Singapore have simply never heard,” explains Leow.

“There are early examples of women who made significant contributions to Singapore like Hajjah Fatimah – she has a mosque named after her gazetted as a national monument in 1973, but few in Singapore know her story.”

To shine the spotlight on women in the mainstream narrative, the campaign called #ShesAnIcon tapped on locally-based women illustrators Esther Goh, Elen Winata, Twisstii, Anngee Neo, and Shanlyn Chew to create a series of online GIF stickers that seek to elevate Singapore women role models.

The female icons who featured as part of this campaign included former air stewardess Farzana Abdul Razak who triumphed over a plane crash tragedy, actress Jeanette Aw who made a mark in the male-dominated film making industry, Kanwaljit Soin who was Singapore’s first female nominated Member of Parliament, Alemay Fernandez who is the only Asian singer to have performed with three of the top jazz orchestras in the world.

Each illustration will feature an inspirational phrase or quote spotlighting the achievements of each icon.

Amanda Lim, a senior strategist at BBH Singapore explains the creative process of the campaign was focused on representation in this modern world. She notes that stickers and memes have become the way people express and reflect themselves on social media, becoming vehicles for ideas and thoughts in society.

Stickers featuring women role models such as Kamala Harris have amassed upwards of 22.5m views each, demonstrating the immense power of stickers in inspiring the next generation of women.

“Women can’t pick role models they don’t see. In Singapore, the media we are exposed to tends to focus on women from Hollywood or K-pop/K-dramas. Hence, the lack of visibility of Singapore women is the huge reason behind the finding,” explains Lim.

“It is interesting to see how amazed people are when they learn about the stories behind the incredible women we’ve featured through the stickers.”

Brands also have a part to play to inspire the next generation of women heroes. Leow points out women in Asia Pacific have made strides in the workplace, political leadership, civil society, arts, sports and so on.

However, a 2020 study conducted by Aware and R3 found that gender representation in Singapore advertising still lags far behind reality and frequently succumbs to retrograde stereotypes.

“Portrayals of gender in advertising and other media actively socialise boys and girls to act out their gender identities in certain ways. Brands have a responsibility, therefore, to think far more critically and expansively about how women are presented in their imagery,” she says.

“A creative approach that is more diverse and gender-informed (i.e. sensitive to various issues around gender inequality and related stereotypes) should help achieve that vision.”

Lim advises brands that the first step is to acknowledge that responsibility and take accountability. She notes it is not easy especially when it comes to unconscious biases, but urges every brand has to try.

“Start from home. We actually do not have to look further afield to be inspired. Brands could play a role in elevating the narratives of the women in APAC,” she explains.

“It has been enlightening to see that the diverse women icons we featured have proven to be incredibly relevant, with sticker views reaching 4m in a short span of three weeks. Some of the stickers have been so popular, they are appearing alongside global icons in searches on Giphy.”