Racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Photo: Getty
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Does London's housing industry have a problem with race?

The UK has perfectly decent race discrimination laws – but in an area as complex as housing, the government must double down on efforts to enforce this legislation.

Last month, a major housing developer in south east London faced complaints from local residents that not enough white faces were being shown on their advertising hoardings – for their shiny riverside apartments selling for up to £800,000.

The complainants pointed to several prominent hoardings which featured people one can reasonably presume were the desired target owner-occupier – white Caucasian young professionals. The developer has since disputed the residents disgruntlement – saying that other hoardings around the site used black and Asian faces. These were, however, less prominently positioned.

Having spoken to those who complained, it's clear that regardless of whether the firm's marketing was racially biased, the issue had touched a nerve.

There was a belief that housing developers in south east London wanted to attract wealthier white professionals, at the expense of local ethnic minorities – who have often lived in the area for longer and in some cases account for half the local population. They see the slew of hipster cafes, mahogany coated wine bars and rising house prices as a gentrification process inextricably entwined with race economics.

It's a gripe I experienced when living in Brixton, south London, a few years ago. I'm a white “young professional” – and had moved to the area midway through its extraordinary gentrification process. One observation of race could be seen on the bus down Brixton Hill, to the Tube station, where most of the white passengers off-loaded and jumped on the Underground, while black and Asian passengers mainly stayed on the bus, heading for central London. Underground tickets in London are roughly twice as expensive as buses, and it was an unsettling and embarrassing demonstration of how important race still is in determining income inequality. Black Caribbean Londoners are 50 per cent more likely than white Londoners to come from low-income households, while black Africans are more likely.

In 2013, an investigation by the BBC discovered letting agents in London were quietly conspiring to ensure black tenants weren't offered leases, on request from racist landlords. When approached by black tenants, the agents would simply pretend the flat had already been let, or promise to call them back – but never following through. A year previously, the BBC had uncovered numerous private advertisements for flats which asked for “Asian only” or “Indian only” tenants, demonstrating that racism can “flow both ways.” In 2009, the BBC found that letting agents in Lincolnshire had been excluding migrant workers at the request of landlords

The legislative framework is also muddled. Discrimination on the grounds of colour or nationality is technically allowed if someone is taking in a lodger in small premises, or if an owner-occupier is selling their home privately.

When it comes to social housing, there is, despite what the far right claim, little to suggest that immigrants or racial minorities are any more likely to make it off the 2m strong waiting list and into a council house.

But black and ethnic minority (BAME) housing associations have faded from public life. Established in the Seventies and Eighties, they have since largely been assimilated into larger associations, and lost their specialised identity. It has long been argued these groups promote racial separation, which in some part is true – but there is no denying that racial minorities in the UK have specific social problems that might be better addressed by close support from housing associations, not big government.

Any actual or perceived element of racial discrimination in housing can be enormously damaging. Some have attributed the Ferguson riots last year to poorly formulated housing policy that came about in the mid twentieth century. On the other side, developing housing policy which specifically addresses income inequalities between ethnic groups can have a pronounced and positive effect on community cohesion. The UK has perfectly decent race discrimination laws – but in an area as complex as housing, with so many moving parts of such varying scale, the government must double down on efforts to enforce this legislation.

Alastair Sloan, unequalmeasures.com

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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