The role our industry plays in fueling gender bias

Earlier this month, International Women’s Day brought the issue of gender-based bias boldly into the foreground of our minds. We’ve seen a wealth of advocacy and research-based content surrounding this - exploring biases that hinder women within the context of the workplace. And what policy changes need to be implemented for sustainable change.

I wanted to take this opportunity though to share an opinion on biases from a different angle.

If you’re reading this, you have the opportunity, in your day job, to shape how women are represented, and therefore perceived, in Australia.

Communications are powerful. Storytelling is powerful. So is tech.

Our industry is built on these mechanisms and outputs. Though, to be frank, the majority of stories we’re served up daily through our industry are loaded with the same mix of character ingredients. For instance, generally in Australia, when women are depicted, they are usually young, white, able-bodied and portrayed in ‘supporting’ roles.

Perceptions ultimately drive attitudes and behaviours. How we interpret ‘roles’ from the stories, ads and content we consume impacts the way we behave towards people who do or don’t seem to conform to those roles. It also impacts how we perceive our own value/role in the world.

To put this into context, a new global study carried out in 30 countries (including Australia) by Ipsos, in collaboration with the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, found that one in four women who’d viewed comments or images online that suggested men are superior to women, or which suggested that women cause many of the problems facing men, say that they experience low self-esteem or loss of confidence because of the online content they’ve been seeing.

There are obvious places where we can point fingers in our industry - brands that reap success from hypersexualised content, platforms without strong ethical governance around access and moderation, and so on.

But, we can also look beyond the obvious. It’s not just communications that overtly feature sexualisation and objectification, masculine peer culture and depictions of male dominance and violence against women that have a negative impact. Ultimately, if you have a role in communications that reinforce gender stereotypes and underrepresentation, you also have an opportunity to help shift the dial on these indicators of harm, bias and inequality.

That might feel like a hard pill to swallow, but just take a look at the recent research, that RMIT did with Women’s Health Victoria on the subject. Portrayals that reflect inequality and ooze unconscious bias negatively affect women’s physical and mental health, as well as contribute to a society that condones and excuses violence against women.

So what can we do right now?

We’ve come a long way since the Mad Men era but our industry still has quite stereotypical and sexualised tones - both in workplace cultures as well as the work we collectively produce. So what I feel we can do right now is be conscious of our role in both ecosystems and with that understand the impact of our words and actions … for those in our immediate environment and the broader society which our work seeks to represent.

Again, noting the wealth of advocacy and research-based content out there on addressing biases that hinder women in leadership, I’ll keep my reference to agency-client collaborations and the work we collectively produce.

1. Become more aware, have the difficult conversations and be willing to admit you might not be getting it right.

You’ve likely at some point heard Brené Brown speak to this importance of vulnerability in daring leadership. She calls it ‘rumbling’ - the act of having courageous conversations. Whatever your framing, my advice would be to explore what that could look like for you with your colleagues and agency partners.

We’re on a collective journey but clearly, this train is not moving fast enough. Be as inclusive as you can in acknowledging positive and conscious change might be required in the end to end spectrum of developing the communications work you do. But I also invite you to be an advocate - keep this issue active, embed thinking quickly and be willing to call out what you see and feel could be done differently.

2. Consider how you’re shaping your briefs.

Consider the balance of data, nuance and context in painting the picture of the communities you’re trying to influence. Is there room to evolve your segmentation/persona profiling to move beyond basic audience mapping? Could it actually support your bottom line value to do that?

What characteristics and features do characters at the core of your stories really need to exhibit? Can you consider that before assigning a gender?

Is it possible there’s an opportunity to normalise emotional diversity through your communications work? Surely, an emotion is an emotion … if there’s anger it shouldn’t signal he’s strong and she’s hysterical. Or if there are tears that he’s compassionate but she’s lost it. It really shouldn’t matter that it’s a male or female on-screen displaying an emotion - but it does. We’ve been wired through a lifetime of exposure to interpreting that differently.

3. Dig deeper and get inspired.

Check out the research, get informed and encourage your organisation to take action against creating communications that use old metaphors and essentially reinforce stereotypes and biases. shEqual has some great resources to get you started.

Ask, don’t assume. That goes with pronouns, sexual orientation and Photoshopping.

Check out some of the recent work from brands trying to break the mould.
Building awareness of unconscious gender bias campaign from the UK.
Adidas Impossible is nothing ad.
Optus - non-stereotypical ad.

It’s important these aren’t one-off responses to industry pressure and that we keep showing up to shift the dial. Everyone has a role to play - whether you’re a communications executive, a creative, a brand manager, an educator or a consumer.

According to Ipsos, one in three Australians reckon we’ve gone far enough already with gender equality.

I find that baffling when, on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, and one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man they know.

That woman could be your mother, daughter, sister, aunt or friend. Let’s realise the connection between biassed representation and inequality. Let’s realise our role, accountability and opportunity to make a positive impact and shift the dial where we can.

Kate Griffiths, Group Business Director

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