Why should it be only women who speak out about sexual violence? An IWD protest in Brazil. Photo: Getty
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On International Women's Day, let's ask men why progress towards equality is so slow

Men need to do more than ask for gratitude for being an ‘ally’ or say they think equality is a ‘good thing’ in principle. They need to feel real anger - and help make a change.

 

As our TV screens, Twitter feeds, newspapers and magazines burst with feminine talent for International Women’s Day, I have a nagging feeling something has been lost in translation. International Women’s Day shouldn’t actually be about women per se. It’s about showing what it would be like to have a more equal society. A magical glimpse of a parallel universe where all our lives are full - not just for one day, but every day - of the difference women can make if they are free to fulfill their potential. What kind of lives we could all have if they really were given equal billing, or even – perish the thought - promoted.

And when the conversation only focuses on how women are leading the charge for change, the ball is then put firmly in our court. Why can’t we find the women to lead the country, to run our companies, to fight our wars and write our great novels if they are all so talented, the refrain goes. Yet we rarely ask what kind of society it is we expect women to take on – or who else has a role to play in changing it. That makes it seem like ending inequality is something for women to do, not something from which we all benefit. In turn, the question about why progress is so slow – when we’ve had feminism for generations – also becomes something for women to answer alone.

Yes, you - Women. Why have you let inequality endure? Why does the pay gap still exists, and indeed why is it is getting bigger? Its existence is ‘just a fact’, says Nigel Farage . . . because only women have children and so of course their pay should suffer. Why are women only overwhelmingly appointed to non-exec positions in businesses rather than as decision makers - because it is ‘elitist’ to want to see women running businesses, according to Alison Wolf. Why do rape and domestic violence reports continue to rise, but prosecutions continue to fall – because it is ‘complex’, according to the police.  The list goes on - why do we still lock up women who have experienced sexual violence in conflict? Why do only middle class, white feminists seem to get the book deals? And why is the word feminism so negative, ‘unhelpful’ and offputting? All this and more is our problem - and so ours alone to resolve.

It's time to stop the blame game in its tracks. It is not for women to change the world, but for the world to change through equality for women. And that means we need to turn to the other half of the equation and ask men as the major beneficiaries why progress is so slow - and what they are going to do about it.

Feminism isn’t about women. It’s about the inequality in power and outcomes that occurs when women are locked out from the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Changing that requires not just women to come forward but men to unlock those barriers too. To be the ones saying they are frustrated by the pace of change, because they are missing out on that magical world they get to glimpse once a year on IWD. Men need to do more than ask for gratitude for being an ‘ally’ or say they think equality is a ‘good thing’ in principle. They need to feel real anger that more should be done - and help with the action necessary to get it done.

I stand alongside those amazing women fighting the good fight and encouraging them to speak up. Their diverse voices enrich my life and make me passionate about equality and how it will benefit me and those I love. But this International Women’s Day, I’m turning to my male colleagues, friends and family and asking them not just to listen, but to be accountable too.

Men of the world: see the difference women make and the talent they have. See what you are missing out on when inequality goes unchallenged, when your mothers, sisters, lovers and friends have to put up with this rubbish we call the patriarchy and so struggle to succeed. The time for sympathy or indifference is over. Start being selfish and do something about breaking it down yourselves – trust us, it will make your lives better too, not just on IWD but every day.  

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