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Fact or Fiction: The Art of Feminist Marketing

Culture

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."
-Barbara Annis

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."

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.