Is marketing enough to tackle gender inequality?

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The right to vote, protection against violence and even the chance at running the country are all advantages for women which have made an appearance since Emily Davison performed her heroic demonstration at the Derby back in 1913.

Yet, it doesn’t appear that the stereotype of women has changed much in those 100 years: When the BBC’s revealed salary list exposed a major gender discrepancy, other businesses shook in fear at the prospect of being discovered next rather than displaying outrage, and the sexualisation of women in advertising is still stealing the glory away from their creative input in an era where degradation should be obsolete.

Despite this, marketing has also coughed up some serendipitous campaigns on this issue, with one campaign racking up 2,308,103 views. This isn’t due to lack of awareness, so why is it not triggering change?

Five UK agencies spoke to The Drum about the responsibility we carry and discuss whether marketing has the power to drive change across the industry.

Mark Stringer, co-founder of PrettyGreen, believes that although the marketing is momentarily powerful, it hasn’t resonated with viewers: “The fundamental issue is that we don't know how big the problem actually is; due to our historical class structure in Britain, we struggle to talk about money or what we earn, making it possible for a gender pay-gap to be a hidden secret.” Yet, he is a firm believer that marketing is “always the answer to help drive change”, explaining that uncomfortable headlines will give companies the confidence to start taking the issue seriously.

“Marketing alone will never be enough to tackle gender inequality,” opposes Belinda Collins, managing director of Zest. “Did United Colours of Benetton’s controversial ad solve the race inequality issue? No, it didn’t. But what it did was create noise and with that, a massive platform for debate, discussion and reflection which cements the fact that diversity is fully on the radar of every business owner, employer, investor and stakeholder.

“As an industry, what we absolutely need to get right is the balance of propelling women up the career ladder and giving them the tools to empower themselves to move from middle management to senior management.”

Fast Web Media’s digital marketing executive, Poppy Ingham, expands on Stringer’s point: “Can marketing alone tackle gender inequality? Perhaps not, but I certainly think to turn to advertising and marketing to lead the way and set the examples is a huge step in the right direction. The millennial and generation Z era are pioneering the way for equality and a conscious change in stereotypical representations.”

She points out that the trends on Getty Images demonstrate how there has been a bigger craving for authentic images that break social conventions in the past two years. “I think sincere, clear-cut pieces of marketing and advertising can be seen as more than an entertainment piece,” she expresses.

If much of the demand from young generations encompasses acceptance and cutting ties with traditional stereotypes, then why are these demands not resonating with action? Is it our responsibility as agencies to display stronger messages or is marketing now an entertainment factor that provokes only temporary emotional reactions?

“We know that sex sells. That’s nothing new," continues Belinda Collins. "What we, as an agency, need to have in the forefront of our minds are two things when taking a brief from a client – truth and authenticity. If we use these two values as our guide posts, we work from an inside-out point of view and get to the heart of what the product, service or business stands for. And then we work our magic! We strive to tell brave, bold, unexpected and interesting stories around these that differentiate us from the status quo. We should use our moral judgement to push boundaries!”

Co-founder of Satellite 75, Paul Blundell, believes the answer lies in education: “Speaking as a staunch feminist, the short answer to the question is no, of course marketing is not enough to tackle gender equality. Can some of the skills we put to use in our day to day activities contribute to the cause? Absolutely. As leaders and heads of agencies can we have an impact day to day? Absolutely.

“However, I believe the real change will come not from workplace initiatives and like, (however critical and welcome they are), but ultimately from the lessons and examples we all set at home. As the husband of a successful woman and active feminist, the example we set in our household to our now two-year-old daughter and the examples and lessons her peers see and hear, that is where the true change will come from.”

Education and example are imperative to striving change. But is it possible to educate people in a social media-driven world, in which the pinnacle of advertising is a woman’s naked body? Impero’s lead creative, Lara Groves, expands on this point: “Much of the change we seek needs to be driven from the examples we set at home. But setting those examples is as much about making demands as consumers in the here and now, as it is about inspiring the next generation.

“As agencies, we have to finally put an end to outdated assumption-based creative, and ensure that what we do is always driven by what consumers actually want. If we, as women, want to see accurate, diverse messaging that empowers gender equality, then the people coming up with those messages must reflect the demographics they’re speaking to. If we want to see true equality in our industry, we need to be making greater waves as consumers – rallying against any marketing that does us disservice, or just plain pisses us off.”

She concludes: “As for brands – any agency worth their salt should already be championing diversity in their ranks, and in your comms. If they don’t, don’t use them – after all, it’s you consumers will be coming for when the messaging goes wrong.”