How to get active

My first experience of leading a campaign was forced on me - the world was being screwed up by leaders who were determined to embark on an unjust war with Iraq, despite clear evidence that most of the population disagreed with them. It began to seem like democracy was being ignored and we couldn't make a difference.

We started by protesting outside Parliament – even though we found that it was depicted as 'bunking off' by a national media that couldn't understand our action would've been slightly less effective after school: in the dark when the politicians have all gone home…

We needed to take the message straight to these politicians that they might try not to listen but they were damn well going to see us and read about our opposition to their criminal foreign policy.

We weren't bound by party policy or any idea of how a campaign should run. We made our placards and took to the streets. Being young meant we were rash or confident enough not to worry about conventions or rules and our stand won us national coverage. In many ways it's the reason I'm writing now.

Removed from real life?

They were such optimistic days, and really gave me a passion for getting off the sidelines. Now I'm at university I haven't got off my soapbox. I'm still fighting for what I see as justice – but the rules have changed and so, inevitably, have I.

Because despite that early experience in my teenage years, university came as something of a shock. How to deal with the bureaucracy of uni clubs, how to ingratiate yourself with the existing volunteers – even how to turn up in the right place at the right time and feel like anything more than a confused bystander!

It sometimes seems like university removes you further from real life politics by encasing all your hard work and action in a campus-shaped bubble, and to me it felt like the actions of dedicated college representatives and volunteers were little more than pre-determined attempts to follow the script of 'good' activism.

After all, uni clubs are safe – bound by their contract to remain law abiding, demonstrably removed from mainstream politics, and rarely able to act with autonomy or innovation. They don't automatically feel like a way to fight against ideals entrenched in society or to make a tangible difference.

It took me over a year to find my own place in the uni campaigning scene. I realised I was happier working by myself than dedicating myself to climbing established hierarchies. I appreciate the control over what I am trying to change and how, when, where and why I was trying to change it.

Call to action

I've launched a website – at www.handsupfor.org – which aims to provide other young people with a toolkit for getting started, finding out and sharing further information. This lets me share information both with other people from my university and with the wider world, grounding our achievements in a more real political context – something especially important when you're at a uni where the students feel slightly out of touch with the concept of hardship or poverty…

I work now as part of a variety of horizontal networks, not based on hierarchical notions of command but on the sharing of knowledge, working practices, research and resources. I've begun to see that university isn't about dedicating yourself to a single cause or career - its about discovering what's out there and how you relate to that on a personal, emotional and intellectual level.

I didn't want to climb the union ladder or edit the paper, but have become increasingly surprised by the difference I can make through simple engagement with college groups and integrating this with the Hands Up campaign. The Hands Up manifesto, available on the site, sets out 6 key demands in a programme aiming to 'level the political baseline'

By this I mean providing easy – and, importantly, non-directional – routes into activism, volunteering and campaigning through a whole plethora of legislative changes. Now I'm back in college, looking for support and modification of these points by my peers. After all, I've come to realise that it's only by working together that we can achieve change. So why not get in touch?

Kierra Box co-founded Hands Up For Peace in February 2003 when she was 17. She is a patron of the National Youth Agency and a trustee of the Young People Now Foundation.
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