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."
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.