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Don't worry about the glass ceiling -- the basement is flooding, says Laurie Penny

Let's not pretend that a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance will deliver the change that women need.

The world is going wild for lady bankers. For the first time, a woman, Christine Lagarde, is in charge of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), her tender hand stewarding the institution away from the testosterone-sodden tenancy of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Meanwhile, the press is profiling high-ranking female executives, such as the Facebook chief, Sheryl Sandberg, and a new campaign group, the 30 Per Cent Club, is working to increase the representation of women in FTSE 100 company boardrooms from around 13 per cent to just under a third.

It is implied that doing so will turn banking into a caring industry, in which profits soar like bluebirds in corridors that ring with the clatter of Manolos on marble. There are three distinct problems with this hypothesis.

The first is that it's arrant twaddle, based on cod science and lazy stereotypes. The 30 Per Cent Club's claim that companies with more women bosses tend to perform better wasn't pulled out of thin air but it hasn't been proven that this is because women's pink and squishy brains make them more careful investors, as the pseudoscience of "neuroeconomics" suggests -- it could simply be that more progressive companies tend to hire more women.

Sexism is rife in the City of London. The Fawcett Society's Sexism in the City campaign in 2008 drew attention to a culture of unequal pay, disregard for the practicalities of childcare, laddish posturing and business deals done in strip clubs.

Yet it is ludicrous to suggest, as many have done, that if we were to temper the big, bad boy's world of business with a few more fragrant females, then these institutions would suddenly become a force for good.

Lagarde can certainly work a pencil skirt -- the Observer's gushing profile heralded her as "the world's sexiest woman" -- but that won't stop the IMF imposing austerity measures across the eurozone that will leave many unemployed and destitute.

The second problem with this obsession with female representation in business is its cynicism. Speaking on 5 July at a seminar organised by the 30 Per Cent Club, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, suggested that "more diverse boards are better boards" because they "outperform their male-dominated rivals".

As Minister for Women and Equalities, May should know that we pursue equality in the workplace because it's good for women, not because it's good for business.

Trying to justify feminism on the basis of profit is dangerous because, at its root, feminism is pretty bad for business. Maternity provisions, equal pay, higher taxes to finance a welfare state that supports hard-working mothers -- all of these things cost money and affect returns.

May recognised this in December 2010, when she scrapped the Labour government's plans to compel employers to publish equal-pay audits -- a move that was applauded by the City of London.

The third problem with this "trickle-down" feminism is that giving women more power at the top of the socio-economic pile does not necessarily increase the power of women at the bottom of the heap.

Ensuring that a slightly larger minority of females get to wield power in finance does next to nothing for the cause of women's liberation, because the real issue is not that women have too little power in business but that business has too much power. Three years of global economic meltdown have dispelled the liberal delusion that making life easier for the men and women in the boardrooms of London and Wall Street makes life easier for everyone else.

Trickle-down feminism is as nonsensical a liberation strategy as trickle-down wealth redistribution. The problem with a glass ceiling is that nothing trickles down. While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement -- and the basement is flooding.

There is nothing wrong with personal ambition. After all, if equality means anything, it means the right for a woman to be as much of a ruthless, power-hungry bastard as any man and to be judged accordingly.

Let's not pretend, however, that a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance will deliver the change that women need.

This post was written with the help of Zoe Stavri.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA