I started following the Everyday Sexism Project on twitter earlier this year (@EverydaySexism). Almost immediately it made me realise that I’ve lacked perspective on just how prevalent sexism is in the UK. But still, months later, I find myself continually surprised by the obscene content of the true stories in their twitter feed.
I do consider myself a feminist, but sexism is supposed to be a thing of the past – a flawed, antiquated way of thinking that doesn’t have a leg to stand on in a logical argument. I thought that when you see sexist issues on the news or read about them in the paper, they’re isolated incidents. But they’re not – and the Everyday Sexism Project, and now the #YesAllWomen hashtag, are doing a great job of helping people realise this, speak out about their experiences and find strength and support in numbers.
There are a few well-known sexist controversies in the UK, throughout a wide range of industries, organisations and societal constructs. Things like maternity/paternity leave and the salary gap are perhaps the most publicised, but there are still many issues in fields such as sport, politics, media and the arts – as pointed out by Laura Bates in her many inspiring talks. The widespread nature of the figures is both surprising and scary – and the marketing industry is no different.
I’ve heard stories from the not-so-distant past of female employees being belittled and even verbally abused after complaining about harassment, while others were asked to make tea during meetings, despite being more senior than some of the men in the room. And recently The Drum reported that 49% of women working in marketing have experienced sexism at some point in their careers. This figure is alarmingly high, pointing not towards a minority of instigators, buta systemic failure in the upholding of moral standards.
The Drum’s ‘Women in Marketing’ study bemoans the state of the upper echelons of the industry, with 24% of respondents unsatisfied with the scope for their career progression – concurrent with Laura Jordan Bambach’s statistic that only 3% of Creative Directors are women and consistent with similar statistics from other industries that show women occupy an inexcusably tiny percentage of higher-powered jobs.
So it would seem that the marketing industry is well behind the times. But many would argue that some of the work the industry produces is at greater fault – not just for the way that it portrays women, but also for the influence this has on society, women and young girls today. In truth, the media has a lot to answer for in terms of how women are portrayed. Misogyny, stereotypes and double-standards are so common that we as the public are almost numb to them. All too often women in the media are portrayed as the content instead of the person that heralds it.
While many would agree with Tiffany St James, who suggests that there has been a “seismic shift against sexist behaviour,” it’s evident that not all marketing has caught up with the changing public opinion. Just last month, River Island was humiliated into removing what it called the “domestic anti-nag gag” from its website – a novelty football-esque ball gag that encouraged men to gag their nagging partners.
Similarly, in February this year, two VIP e-cigarette ads received over 1,100 complaints for exploiting women and being overly sexual. And a Top Gear trailer that aired at the end of last year drew several complaints for its portrayal of women cleaning and doing the washing, while the men were out driving the fast cars and enjoying themselves. Indeed there are many now-infamous ads from the mid-to-late twentieth century that are wholly sexist and just plain absurd, to which these modern-day ads are not entirely dissimilar. This is exactly why there is such uproar when outdated and frankly unbelievable modes of thinking find their way into current media streams, seemingly unfiltered, unchallenged and unchanging.
Earlier this year it was discovered that iTunes and Google Play were marketing an app that encouragedchildren as young as nine to act as plastic surgeons – being told in one scenario that “this unfortunate girl has so much extra weight that no diet can help her. In our clinic she can go through a surgery called liposuction that will make her slim and beautiful.”
Thankfully the overwhelming response from the Everyday Sexism Project had it swiftly removed from sale, but it’s this kind of influence on young girls that can instil sexist culture in the next generations of modern society. They’re made to believe that they need to be slim to be beautiful and beautiful to be accepted. These messages, because they begin from such a young age, can create a lasting pursuit of an unattainable ideal of self-image that is perpetuated in adulthood by ads that also highlight imperfection and self-improvement.
“Girls and teenagers are perhaps most vulnerable to beauty-industry propaganda. For them, advertising is a window into adult life, a lesson in what it means to be a woman” (Jacobsen & Mazur, 1995).
And it’s not just girls. Young boys will suffer from the same exposure, believing that the examples set are accurate representations of how they should view and treat women.
This construct that depicts women as viewing content is not only perverted, but sexist in its denial of opportunities to women who are considered less photogenic and detrimental to the way consumers, both male and female, perceive women in society.
Jacobsen & Mazur suggest that “the very rigidity of the ideal guarantees that most women will fall outside of it, creating a gap between what women are and what they learn they should be.”
The same applies to men as well, though to a lesser extent. While idealisation does feature in marketing aimed at men, they are targeted more with sexualisation of products and consumables, using women as the ‘bait’ for their attention. This in turn devalues women and is the same circular, seemingly acceptable behaviour that sustains and encourages the rape culture that the Everyday Sexism Project is trying to combat.
But it’s hard to know the best way to approach sexism as a whole. Should the larger-scale problems such as sexist marketing, the salary gap and family-planning discrimination be tackled first, or the more individual issues of physical and verbal abuse and sexist jokes in the name of ‘banter’?
The effect that any one instance of sexism has on a person is incredibly difficult to quantify. Some people can brush certain offences off; perhaps because sexism’s systemic nature in our society makes it seem ‘normal,’ but others will suffer greatly, both immediately and in the future. Having said that, I would argue that the everyday problems should be tackled first because they’re much more frequent. It may even prove easier to eradicate the grander problems if we can first instil a change in culture and the way people think.
“Sexist ads exist because we live in a sexist society. By feeding off ideologies that already surround us, sexist media also perpetuates sexism and misogyny. Understanding the cyclical nature of harmful advertising is the first step to changing it” (Brenna McCaffrey, 2012.)
If people continue to become less tolerant of sexism in social and public domains, then we can have a greater impact on sexism in the working and professional domains. It’s just a matter of time.
But for now, people need to keep speaking out and raising awareness. As Laura Bates said, “our voices are loudest when we raise them together.”
References & Influences
Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism TEDx talk
Michael F. Jacobsen & Laurie Anne Mazur – Sexism and Sexuality in Marketing
Brenna McCaffrey – The Feminist Anthropologist
Office for National Statistics
MarketingWeek: Salary Survey 2013 – The Gender Gap
Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace
The Drum’s ‘Women in Marketing’ study
Women CEOs of the Fortune 1000
Follow the girls and guys of @EverydaySexism
Adweek’s 10 most sexist ads of 2013
Other sexist ads
Vintage sexist ads: http://neatdesigns.net/35-extremely-sexist-ads-that-you-should-see/
VIP e-cigarettes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8mkUQqukmk
Top Gear: http://metro.co.uk/2013/02/06/bbc-receives-complaints-over-sexist-top-gear-advert-3383094/