How brands can use their privilege in the fight for women
As brands observe Women’s History Month, the messages flooding our inboxes and social media feeds often fall into one of two categories: The joyful celebrations of female achievement, or the more dire calls to action, acknowledging how far we still need to go to reach gender parity. Siegel+Gale’s global chief marketer Margaret Molloy explains what brands can really do to create real and sustainable progress.
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It can be hard to believe that, in 2022, we’re still having conversations about breaking gender biases in the workplace and beyond. When I first entered the corporate marketing world decades ago, like many women beginning their careers, I naively thought that gender didn’t influence trajectories — instead it was access to education, innate talent, and the ability to perform excellent work. Of course, as many women progress, we learn not just the role gender plays in the workplace but also the amount of energy women must expend while managing these issues.
It’s easy to feel dispirited. And yet, I don’t think I’m once again naive when I say that my predominant feeling this month is hope. As the chief marketer of a global branding firm and someone very active in the international CMO community, I spent time observing and discussing with chief marketers the internal policies and external messages of some of the most influential companies in the world — and the intentional work being done, and commitments being made inspire optimism for the future of women at work and within their communities.
One thing is paramount: Brands are in a privileged position to drive meaningful change in the world. I encourage leaders of all genders to pay attention to two macro-opportunities to help achieve gender parity.
Better representation within marketing
As marketing leaders, we can intentionally embrace the enormous influence companies and brands have on economies, people, and culture. By deploying commercial clout, creativity, and storytelling, we can defy archaic stereotypes and represent women equally and expansively.
Sometimes progress is achieved by something as foundational as expanded visual representation in marketing materials and content.
Dana Khouri, vice-president of brand communication and marketing at Majid Al Futtaim Retail in Dubai, has worked to break many myths about Arab women — particularly when it comes to the stereotype that they exist only as wives and mothers. During an International Women’s History Day panel I moderated for Siegal+ Gale, Khouri noted that in the United Arab Emirates alone, there were 23,000 businesses run by Emirati women worth a total of roughly $50 billion.
Thus, it’s crucial to reflect the scope of women’s capabilities in marketing campaigns. “While we have to respect the cultural nuances of the region, we are still quite courageous in showing women way beyond just being a mother,” Khouri says, “but as career women, as women decision-makers, as women in power.”
Representation in content has a measurable impact on people’s outlooks and behavior, explains Samantha Maltin, Sesame Workshop’s executive vice-president and chief marketer. Just look at the effect Sesame Street’s local Afghani franchise Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden in Dari and Pashto), which features female doctors, scientists, and pilots, and stars a curious six-year-old girl who loves going to school and teaching new things to her younger brother.
“Boys and girls who watch Baghch-e-Simsim test 29% higher on gender equity attitudes,” says Maltin. “And we even have qualitative research that fathers who are watching with their children are more likely to send their daughters to school.”
Phillips has also made efforts to break gender stereotypes in marketing. Chief marketing and E-commerce officer Lorraine Barber-Miller told me that the global company made all their hair removal promotional material unisex after consumers expressed frustration with the male/female split on their digital properties. Thus, Phillips changed its website structure to one that marketed hair removal based on body parts rather than the consumer’s gender.
Barber-Miller also shared changes in their B2B marketing and advertising, in which, “we feature male nurses, female doctors from a diverse range of cultures. So instead of the stereotypical white female nurses or the older male physicians or traditional families in hospital settings, we're completely flipping that on its side and representing the true reflection of our society and who we serve.”
Parity within the workplace
Second, as business leaders, we can intentionally listen and cultivate workplaces that are adaptive to the holistic realities women face. By deploying comprehensive systems, complete with processes, measurement, and incentives, we can value women equally as everyone else.
While many companies must work retroactively, fixing institutional structures that have traditionally held women back in the workplace, there’s great comfort in seeing how many startups are intentionally creating environments with an eye towards gender parity.
“One of the things that I'm most excited about is how we build our team from inception and hire with [equality] in mind,” says Maya Watson, Clubhouse’s global head of marketing. “I’m really proud that 82% of my team is women and more than 50% of managers at Clubhouse are women.”
Equality doesn’t end with hiring. According to Hootsuite CMO Maggie Lower, the social media management platform undertook gender pay equity in 2020 and, as of last year, “we identified that we have gender pay equity across every intersectional group in our company, so it was a really intentional endeavor.”
In a tight labor marketing companies are competing to attract and retain top talent like never before and this means a renewed focus on the role of business in the world. “People want to work at purpose-driven companies,” Christine Anderson, senior managing and global head of external relations at Blackstone, says. “This is not just women. But I do think for women, there is some desire to do that even more so.”
Taking progress forward
Of course, there is still work to be done, but equality is no longer being seen as a perk for progressive companies but as a business imperative in terms of external marketing choices and internal workplace dynamics.
It is well documented that people want to see themselves and their values represented in a brand’s marketing. Considering women’s spending power both as consumers and purchasers in B2B, their accurate portrayal rather than gendered stereotypes is necessary both socially and economically.
Furthermore, study after study has shown that gender-diverse workplaces have increased innovation, efficiency, and profitability than their counterpoints. Now imagine how much those metrics would soar if women no longer had to expend energy on fighting against everything from small indignities to outright discrimination and be able to fully focus on job performance and impact.
We live in a time when brands can uniquely play a role in advancing equality and be rewarded commercially for doing so. Luckily, this is imperative that brands are proving to take very seriously, providing hope that one day soon, we will be able to exclusively celebrate women’s achievements rather than decry how far we still have to go.
Margaret Molloy is global CMO at Siegel+Gale.