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BE BOLD FOR CHANGE

28TH MARCH 2017

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The theme for this year's International Women's Day was  “Be Bold For Change”. And that’s just what we aim to be at Engine. It’s why we hosted our Engaging the 21st Century Woman event yesterday, and why we’ve commissioned our extensive study into the 21st Century Woman to examine issues from how women see themselves to how they are represented by brands.

To us, a part of Being Bold For Change is giving air time to these fundamental issues. After all, it is only by taking the time to ask the uncomfortable questions that we can hope to affect change for us, our clients and most importantly our customers.

It’s especially significant for us, in the communications industry. The ways we speak about women should be pitch perfect, not only as communication specialists, but also as people with a huge reach and responsibility to affect meaningful change.

UNDERSTANDING THE 21ST CENTURY WOMAN

‘Engaging the 21st Century Woman’ was hosted at Foyles’ flagship bookstore on Charing Cross Road. Erminia Blackden, Head of Strategy at Partners Andrews Aldridge and the brains behind the whole initiative, presented the crucial findings of our study.

And the headlines were impactful. Did you know for example that 14% of women do not enjoy being a woman? The statistic may be less than a fifth of all women, but that number still represents millions of people. Let that sink in – we’re talking about millions of real women in the UK who find it difficult being a woman.

Did you also know that 76% of women believe that brands don’t represent them properly and a staggering 85% believe that brands should be doing more to change that? 40% of women also cite brands as a major reason to be self-critical. So not only are we not showing women accurately in our industry, but we’re also contributing to a darker cultural trend to boot.

The stats made for often difficult listening in the room, but as our panel discussion uncovered – the fact that 45% of all women don’t find it easy being a woman is hardly surprising.

EMBEDDED ISSUES AT PLAY 

Our panel – comprising Erminia, Harriet Hall (Features Editor, Stylist magazine), Kate Dale (Head of Brand and Strategy, Sport England), Stella Creasy (Labour Co-operative MP) and chaired by our CEO Debbie Klein – deep-dived into the issues that the 21st Century Woman faces. And they didn’t pull any punches.

Debbie Klein immediately addressed the fact that there were no men on the panel. Not through lack of trying, she said. In fact behind the scenes, we approached lots of men – many who were keen to be involved – but were pulled back by their PR and compliance teams. Not a great start, but something that ultimately set the tone for what was to be a very frank discussion.  

In full swing, the panel covered the wide-spread and pervasive stereotyping of women. Traditional depictions of women – like the do-it-all housewife – are not only lazy and inaccurate, but are also debilitating and even offensive to real women.

The panel were quick to note that it’s harmful to assume that the problem here is exclusively men, when in fact women are just as responsible for perpetrating these stereotypes. Inequality, they agreed, is hardwired into our culture, society and even our language. And we all – irrespective of gender – are responsible for moving forward.

The institutionalised sexism and unconscious bias that pervades language and the parts of our psyches is hard to quantify and so even harder to combat. For example, the feminising of job roles like ‘actress’ or ‘waitress’ serve to emphasise difference, not inclusion. The panel noted that terms that have derogatory ‘female’ undertones – like nag or bitch – continue to reduce the female experience. How can we move forward if we’re still stuck using these crude expressions of women?

That’s why verbalising these issues continues to be crucial to affecting change. Especially, noted Creasy, in a world that is becoming increasingly more challenging. In the face of blatant sexism, even in the highest echelons of responsibility, the need to stand up has never been more important.

BREAKING THROUGH THE BARRIERS

So what’s to be done? Creasy encouraged a three-pronged approach – get answers, make allies and respond with actions. Journalist Hall championed discipline to overcome the issues we’re facing – only by challenging our perceptions and being strict with ourselves in the ways we talk about and represent women can we make a difference.

And that sense of responsibility is particularly resonant in the marketing industry. How can we expect to understand and speak meaningfully to women if we don’t have the target audience in our strategy and creative teams, or our boardrooms? Quite simply, we can’t. The first place we should be looking is internally, ensuring that we represent women in every level of our organisation so that we can accurately represent them in the work we produce.  

From there, we can begin to create great work that tackles these issues. Of course, there are already success stories that we can use as inspiration. Kate Dale, part of the team behind revolutionary Sport England campaign This Girl Can, spoke of the need to do the hard work – to truly understand an audience and shun convenient stereotypes. This Girl Can represents women honestly and from a place of real insight, and this allowed it to really break through. That’s what we should be aiming for. Not taking the easy route, but asking questions and challenging automatic and engrained ways of thinking.

Airing these issues will continue to be crucial. For us in advertising and for society as a whole. Having the hard conversations, discussing the uncomfortable topics and ultimately making the mistakes that expose just how embedded sexism continues to be in our society. As the panel pointed out, equality for women benefits all of society, so this will continue to be on our agenda. Long after our ‘Engaging the 21st Century Woman’ event and International Women’s Day are over.