International Women’s Day: gender washing and the importance of male allies

The 2021 swimsuit issues of Sports Illustrated featured Naomi Osaka and Megan Thee Stallion/ Image via Sports Illustrated

On International Women’s Day 2022, Wavemaker’s Camilla Bruggen says we still have a long way to go when it comes to the representation of women in advertising.

Sports Illustrated magazine – and its famed Swimsuit Issue, which made its debut 58 years ago – has arguably done more to promote the male gaze and normalize objectifying women than any publication, with the possible exception of Playboy.

But in January, Sports Illustrated announced a new gender equity advertising initiative, ’Pay with Change’, to turn the SI Swimsuit franchise into a platform for change. The annual Swimsuit Issue and SI Swimsuit’s digital outlets will accept advertising only from companies with demonstrated programs to advance gender equality and drive progress for women’s empowerment.

At first, this seemed like a positive move forward, but then I clicked on its link and the ad served at the bottom of the page was clickbait of a large-breasted woman. I wondered what Popcorn News (the ad I was delivered) does to promote gender equality.

Looking at its 2022 calendar, I question how it relates to gender equality. In what world would you want to teach young people that this narrow, sexually provocative depiction of women equates to female empowerment? How many women (and men) would have this on display in their homes?

I know that I wouldn’t want my teenage daughter to be faced with these images over her breakfast, and I certainly wouldn’t want my son to see women only through the lens of male sexual fantasies. Incorporating diverse models is a photo opportunity rather than an equal opportunity. It’s gender equality washing at its worst. Have we really made such little progress in 58 years?

The power to shape culture

It’s not a leap to recognize that this kind of imagery – and worse – that’s available widely in magazines and the internet has a far-reaching and negative impact on society.

The ASA’s report on Gender Stereotypes in Advertising found that gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them.

These assumptions can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of our lives; outcomes that are increasingly acknowledged to be detrimental to individuals, the economy and society in general.

To this end, ads that feature gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by contributing to unequal gender outcomes (although advertising is understood to be only one of many different factors that contribute, to a greater or lesser extent, to unequal gender outcomes).

So, if Sport Illustrated really wants to have an impact on gender equality, how about it stops portraying women through a sexual lens and instead celebrates the amazing female athletes who inspire girls (and boys) around the world?

How to be better allies

For anyone interested in promoting gender equality, rather than reading the SI Swimwear issue, I suggest using the time to learn how to be an ally to women (and other marginalized groups). A starting place could be the book Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace by David Smith and Brad Johnson.

Three top tips from Smith and Johnson are:

1. Include women

One in five women report being the only woman in the room at work. The probability of flying solo increases substantially for senior-level women. Women who are surrounded by men in the office are 50% more likely to consider leaving; they also experience higher rates of sexual harassment.

To include women, always remember to invite women to meetings, outings and events. Scan the invite list ahead of important planning sessions, off-sites and client engagements and make sure key female colleagues are accounted for. Make social outings feel inclusive by choosing venues and times that work for everyone.

2. Avoid the ‘manspread’

Men take up more space than women. Not just physically but psychologically as well.

Men tend to assume they’ll sit at the table, speak first and more, and that others will defer to their perspectives even when they’re not the expert in the room. Men should amplify the excellent work of talented women around them, it’s not about rescuing.

To avoid manspreading, look for opportunities to step aside, hand her the mic, point out that she is the subject matter expert on the topic. Amplify her contributions. Be vigilant to the fact that women don’t always get credit for their great ideas. If you see her idea stolen or credit going elsewhere, redirect attention to her original thought leadership.

3. Practice transparency

Secrecy perpetuates gender inequities in the workplace. Too often, critical information related to salaries, job benefits, effective negotiation strategies and promotion opportunities are less accessible to women. Don’t assume women have access to this information just because you heard it over drinks or on the golf course.

In addition to salaries, you should also share information about the path to leadership, benefits others have negotiated, deals related to extended family leave, customized flex schedules and shortened work weeks. Transparency is critical to eliminating gender inequities such as the poor representation of women in senior leadership positions and the gender pay gap.

Camilla Bruggen is global head of diversity and inclusion at Wavemaker.