X Factor winner voted “most influential woman of century”

Leona Lewis beats Pankhurst, Thatcher, Lady Di.

That bastion of quality-free newspapers for Londoners, Metro, has shone an unfortunate light on the average demographic of its readership, with a survey asking them to vote for their most influential female Londoner of the past century. The winner? Leona Lewis, the 25-year-old X Factor winner of 2006.

In a poll to coincide with International Women's Day, Lewis beat some reasonably stiff competition, though it was never going to be a fair fight. How could the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement, or even Margaret Thatcher compete with a pop star who's been in the limelight for a solid four years?

To be fair, Leona Lewis is no marketing gimmick. She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School, the Italia Conti Academy and the BRIT School, where she learned to play the guitar and piano, writing her first song at the age of 12 and releasing her first album at 17. But it was The X Factor and her mentor Simon Cowell who really made her.

With its £1m recording contract prize, The X Factor helped Lewis's debut single, "A Moment Like This", break a world record after it was downloaded 50,000 times in 30 minutes, going on to become the 2006 UK Christmas number-one single, outselling the rest of the Top 40's sales combined. She's since had three successful albums, sold the obligatory perfume and autobiography, and last year unleashed her own fashion label, whose main theme seemed to be a massive pair of lips standing in for some sort of postmodern boob tube.

But let's not forget that voice, of which the Daily Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick said: "Her mezzo-soprano range allows her to take melodies from luxurious low notes to high-flying falsetto, gliding with elegant power and impressive control through all kinds of fluctuations and modulations." A bit like Whitney Houston, then.

Nonetheless, one still wonders just how she came to be voted the most influential female Londoner of the past century. Not the past decade, or past four years – the past century. Besides Pankhurst and Thatcher, Lewis beat, in no particular order, the likes of Diana, Tracey Emin, Martha Lane Fox, Judi Dench, Vivienne Westwood and even – heavens above – the-Krays-are-all-right Barbara Windsor.

But what's this – a fix? It seems that while the headline for the story reads "Leona Lewis wins London's most influential woman vote", the actual poll appears to have asked its readers, "Who is your favourite influential London woman?"

While few outside of what Metro calls its "valuable 18-to-44-year-old, full-time working urbanite audience" would reasonably consider Lewis more influential than the likes of Pankhurst, it's not hard to see why she might be considered more of a "favourite" than Thatcher.

The fact that Leona Lewis left her Hackney home for a million-pound LA pad almost as soon as the ink dried on her lucrative contract failed to deter Metro readers from voting her most influential female Londoner. After all, she has said that while she loves her Stateside mansion, Hackney will always be her true home. Metro reader surveys: what's to criticise?

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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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