Why smart women will bin their copies of Smart Woman magazine

"Inner confidence" and "fearing success".

I’m not quite sure how I feel about a small glossy magazine that arrived on my desk today. On the one hand, it’s one of the most patronising reads I’ve experienced in a long time — perhaps all the more so because it’s so well intentioned. On the other, it’s really quite funny in parts, although this was most definitely unintentional.

Smart Woman is a new pamphlet published by Barclays, with the tagline "Take control of your financial future" and a very pouty Emma Hill (CEO of Mulberry) in tiger-stripe heels as the cover girl.

I had to think a while to be able to describe what makes the name Smart Woman so excruciatingly embarrassing, but it’s partly the idea that potential readers will require this kind of affirmation of their own intelligence. It feels like a schoolgirl commendation.

Many women (and men) would undoubtedly benefit from advice on managing their finances and furthering their career, but this isn’t the right way to present it.

Barbara-Ann King, head of female client group at Barclays, wrote the introduction: "For many women… self-doubt seems apparent in the realm of financial decision-making. We see women in many studies revealed as cautious, risk-averse and taking longer to move from thought to action. Not necessarily bad traits, but ones that perhaps hold a woman back from realising her true potential."

For a start, I would suggest that being "cautious" and "risk-averse" doesn’t necessarily imply self-doubt: it could equally imply a greater awareness of, or sensitivity to, what financial risk-taking can mean for themselves or their families, for instance.

Secondly, a strong argument can be made for wanting more cautious, risk-averse individuals in finance. Finally, the producers of Smart Woman would probably have benefited from "taking longer to move from thought to action": the thought behind the magazine is great — it’s the execution that’s so jarring.
   

One of the
  
features in this issue of Smart Woman (doesn’t the name grate?) is about why so few women are on boards, a topic I’ve written about before and one that interests me a great deal.

It piqued my interest, and then contained one of the least sensitive discussions of women giving up work to have children I’ve ever come across. It cites the example of Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment Management and a campaigner for more women board members, who has nine children, to illustrate that it’s not 2having kids per se that’s the problem" when it comes to women reaching the top of the career ladder.

Helena Morrissey has spoken at Spear’s events, and I have a strong feeling that she wouldn’t want her example used to illustrate a point made by Gwen Rhys, founder of Women in the City and Networking Culture, that "if women negotiate their way out of that [gender pay] gap, they have enough money to pay for the childcare and get rid of the guilt."

Morrissey may be a fantastic example of a woman able to juggle work and family life — but not all women can, or would even want to, follow suit. Not all women find that an expensive nanny will help them "get rid of the guilt" after consistently missing bedtime — and few high-flying jobs are OK with women clocking off by 6pm.

If the Daily Mail likes to paint working mothers as bad mothers, Smart Woman implies that stay-at-home mothers are simply under-ambitious — I’d expect a more intelligent discussion from a rag aimed at female executives. 
   
   


It doesn't stop there. Rhys then asserts that not only are women to "blame" for their low representation in the boardroom, but also that women "fear success". "It’s controversial," she says (and she’s not wrong there), "but for women, the fear of success is greater than the fear of failure. Because if you do leap across the precipice to the boardroom, you have to keep proving yourself."

I would like to see some evidence for this notion that women are scared of having to "prove themselves". It’s shocking that a magazine aimed at "smart women" could be so dismissive.

The piece goes on to argue that women don’t do enough to promote themselves, and need to be more pro-active, which may well be true to a degree, but doesn’t reflect the whole picture.

Perhaps this, ultimately, is my real problem with the magazine: King’s introduction may talk about the need for women to overcome their self-doubt, but the rest of the magazine seems mainly concerned with pointing out what women don’t do well enough, or need to do better: women must stop giving up work to have children. They need to stop fearing success. They need to play politics the way men do, raise their own profiles, and change the way they speak in boardroom their views get heard.

We’re not doing well enough, and it is all our fault, is the central theme, and the conspiratorial tone and patronising title don’t help.

"This issue of Smart Woman puts the spotlight back on what women can do when they allow their creative minds to partner with their inner confidence," King writes in her introduction.

When my creative mind partnered with my inner confidence my feelings about Smart Woman suddenly became clear and I had only one thought: bin this thing (but blog about it first).

Women are apparently "taking longer to move from thought to action": Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: ASA
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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