In today's world there is no shortage of feminist-slanted marketing initiatives. Huge companies promise to "help women break the glass ceiling" with emotional campaigns that tug at the heart strings.
The equation goes something like this: company X looks to come across as 'tuned in' and inclusive so it creates a new campaign. Company X puts out slickly produced commercial featuring an adorably diverse group of young girls dressed in tutus or something of the like, add dramatic piano music, an inspiring female voiceover, and culminates the spot with a tagline like "Women are the future." (Oh yeah, that's good). Consumers watching this tear up a bit and think 'wow, this company gets it.' But is there substance behind the hype? Are there even any women behind the message?
“I applaud their intentions but I see window dressing initiatives occur so often that I don't see it having a sustainable impact," says Barbara Annis, founding partner of Gender Intelligence Group, and author of Results at the Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth. "You must think about it in a much more systemic way in order to affect real change."
Despite more brands than ever utilizing inspiring pro-women messaging, complete with catchy hashtags and splashy campaigns, with only a tiny percentage of women sitting on boards and holding executive roles, one has to wonder how deep the messaging really goes. Feminist scholars see various reasons for the disparity, which include the rising spending power women hold as well as an anti-Trump bandwagon message that brands feel pressured to adopt. Additionally because the country's creative directors are nearly all men, Annis warns that many "feminist" commercials may fall short of reaching any real depth.
“I'm certain that when marketing experts saw the power and numbers in the Women's March, they brought this to the table when pitching ad campaigns," says Dr. Marika Lindholm, Founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere). “Even in the Super Bowl, we saw more politically oriented ads. Whenever advertisers take a stance on a social reality such as, marriage equality, multiracial families and feminism, they've done their research and take a calculated risk as to whether this will attract new consumers. It usually works in their favor because controversial and cutting edge ads get attention. Female focused ads in this day and age are not super risky."
According to Annis, although companies are doing branding, advertising and even recruiting with a pro-female bent, a revolving door has been created, in which firms are losing women five to one, sometimes just months after being hired. The number one cited reason for this dropoff is the lack of an inclusive company culture, as many large companies feel more like a boys club than a female-friendly work zone.“Women are heavily recruited as they graduate with MBAs into [firms like] Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs, but they don't stick around," says Annis. "There's a big challenge because they leave for 'personal reasons,' which creates this assumption it's because of workload. They actually leave because they don't feel valued for the authentic skills they bring to the table."
“Sometimes we put the cart before the horse. [Corporations] think if they just push a numbers game, or a quota on it they will solve the problem."
Among the recent female-focused campaigns of today are Microsoft's Girls Do Science campaign; Audi, Godaddy and GE's emotional commercials, and UBS's five year plan to “scale up its expertise to better serve female client." A brief online search of these companies quickly reveals that in no one “leadership" board is there any gender-balanced team (not even close), with most being under 20 percent women. Audi, whose “Daughter" commercial may have caused tears during the Superbowl, also caused a controversy as many women found the ad more depressing than empowering. For those keeping tabs, there are two women on Audi's "executive team," which is made up of 14 Caucasian men.
“If you were to search companies that do well by African Americans, AT&T and Aflac score well, whereas, Latino Americans predominate and are promoted in health care and service sectors," says Lindholm. “For example, Marriott and Kimpton Hotels make the list of best places to work for Latinos. Not surprisingly, information technology companies score well in terms of Asian American employment and promotion. For women, IBM and Johnson & Johnson are frequently cited as actively promoting women to senior management. All the companies mentioned above should be commended for actively promoting diversity. Nevertheless, there is work to be done before most of us work in an organization that truly embraces inclusivity."
Even Wall Street's famous bronze bull statue got a female adversary in the form of a “Fearless woman statue," sponsored by financial firm State Street Global Advisers. But with 23 men and five females on its “leadership board," one must wonder if the oft-selfied and photographed marketing tool serves as more lip service than a harbinger of change.
“That statue you see has a bit of vestige of that history that says 'I'm brave, I can get in there, I can do it,' but what we are missing is it's not about this young woman making it in the traditional male hierarchy; it's about transforming the culture of the old male hierarchy," says Annis. "It's about creating a culture that is inclusive where everyone can thrive. Having a symbolic statue is not a bad thing if it gets some new conversation going. But if it goes back to the old conversation which says 'it's up to the women,' we can't fix the problem."
Embracing inclusivity is without a doubt a powerful marketing message in today's emotional times, and according to both Annis and Lindholm, is also perfectly self-serving, in that it allows brands to capitalize on today's unparalleled spending power of women. Appealing to the number one shopping decision maker (Annis says more than 82 percent of all shopping choices are made by women) is without a doubt a positive thing for companies looking to increase their bottom line.
“There's no doubt in my mind that female-focused marketing campaigns are trying to capitalize on women's power as consumers," says Lindholm. "Women and mothers make the majority of purchase decisions in families across America. Campaigns, such as Dove's Real Beauty and Pantene's Not Sorry ostensibly incorporate female empowerment emerge because of what's going on in the national dialogue."
The blatant woman-focused marketing tactics becomes even more interesting when analyzing the fact that women share their experiences with brands, both good and bad. Men, however, are less verbal about their feelings towards brands.
“Women are the best promoters or not," says Annis. “Women share like crazy. When men have positive or negative experience they tell three people only if it's relevant, while women on average tell up to 32 people even if not relevant to the topic, and that's just verbally. When you add social media the sharing just goes crazy."
Annis goes on to say that women tend to value the journey to purchasing more than the actual purchasing. In fact, she shares that women have more connections in memory sensors for brain, meaning they are more apt to remember a brand's advertising, whether it's a good or bad experience.
“When we started 30 years ago it was all about gender equality but very quickly it has become about gender intelligence," says Annis. “It's about understanding the differences and what women want in the market. Many women want a relationship with a brand, not a transactional sale. That's why companies like Dove, who show authentic communication, have saled exploding and are a beloved brand. They are listening to the women and shifted accordingly"
According to Lindholm, actual progress towards a day when female executives equal the number of men, needs more than expensive commercials and marketing promises. Change can only happen when organizations once and for all resolve the nuanced disparities that keep women from achieving the same levels of success men routinely reach.
“Even when companies are dedicated to diversity, there are subtle mechanisms that undermine their best intentions," says Lindholm. “For example, given that mentoring is critical to upward mobility, some organizations established mentoring programs but expected senior women to take on too much of the mentoring load. They simply can't be effective mentors under those conditions. Networking is also problematic because women may have family obligations or they simply aren't invited to the golf outings or poker games where useful connections are made. I could offer a myriad of similar processes that contribute to the gender gap. Laws and policies are essential but it will take some trial and error on the part of progressive organizations to break down mobility structures based on outdated ideas about gender. And by keeping an eye out for unintended consequences of well-meaning diversity initiatives."
"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." -Willa Cather
A logical fallacy called bifurcation (yes, it sounds like a disease) is used to make people believe that they can only choose between two extreme choices: love me or leave me, put up or shut up, etc. In relation to my career and my love life, I was once stricken by this crazy malady.
I spent over a decade in and out of love relationships that undermined my career and drained my creative energy along with my finances. The key problem was that I was convinced that I had two options: be a kickass, and powerful professional who scares off any prospective mate or surrender to that deep and profound love such that my ambitions blow away in the wind. For years, my psyche ping-ponged between these two choices like that was the only game in town. But why?
Turns out we women are often programmed into thinking that we can't have love (at least that good, juicy heated kind) and any sort of real career. This is not actually that surprising given the troubled history that America has with women in the workplace. Post WWII, women were supposed to quit their jobs and scurry back home and leave the careers for the returning men. And if you think we've come a long way from making women feel they don't belong in the workplace, consider Alisha Coleman. In 2016, she was fired because her period leaked onto a chair!
But try to keep a good woman down, and well, you can't (Alisha sued her former employer). Given enough information we will always find a way to overcome our situation. As we teach in my practice, Lotus Lantern Healing Arts, we are all our own gurus. The light in the lotus just offers a way to illuminate your path.
So what was I missing so many years ago when I kept struggling between two suboptimal choices? The answer is the understanding that if I wanted to have it all, I had to start living right now as if I could. For me to be with someone who supported me having a fantastic career, I had to believe that that was actually one of my choices and start living that way.
Of course that is easier said than done (like most life lessons). So once I made that realization, here are the three key changes I made (and no they didn't happen all at once):
First, I stopped apologizing. Why the hell do women always feel the need to apologize for everything! (Sorry for swearing! Jk.) In particular, why do we have to feel bad about time away from the homefront? Remember Don Draper stopping off at the bar before heading home? I took a Madman lesson from him and stopped apologizing for my free time and let go of my usual rush to get back. Instead I focused on enjoying the transition, which was often needed to release the stress of work. Whether I was slow-driving listening to my jams and singing at the top of my lungs or stopping off for a pedicure, a little ritual went a long way to making me feel like a real human when I walked through the door.
Second, I let go of perfection in order to be present. I stopped stressing over a work deadline and instead rescheduled it to tend to my love life or postponed a romantic dinner because a juicy work opportunity appeared. In this way, I did not force an unnatural choice or one I did not want but really paid attention to what felt right. Instead of feeling subpar in each realm, I end up getting the most out of my time in both places.
Third (and perhaps most significantly) I began to welcome and expect encouragement from the most significant person in my life. I made it clear to my partner that I wanted insight and not criticism. And since I knew I needed understanding and not saving, I said, "Please help me look at my career woes from a different angle instead of offering me advice." Ultimately, I only accepted partners that truly supported my dreams and didn't let me play small.
Today, some of the most exquisite pleasure I feel comes simply from my partner witnessing me. Having a cohort who really appreciates my struggles, helps me integrate work and life, and enjoys the wins together can be mind-blowing. Likewise, when the shit hits the fan (again, not sorry!), it's really important to have a partner that can hold space for you and help you remember those wins.
It's a constant battle. Our culture still perpetuates the myth by pitting love and career against each other (ever see Fatal Attraction?). Men don't always get this message, but then we don't need to wait for them to get it. All we have to do it start living right now in the way we truly deserve and bring others along with us. When my friends see me and my partner together separately killing it in the career department and fiercely loving each other they say, "Your relationship gives me hope."