In commemoration of 100 years of advertising, I attended a tell-all with some very well-known faces in advertising. The session that discussed changing the portrayal of gender on screen, quickly shifted into an intimate storytelling of what being a female in advertising once was and means today. News anchor Fiona Bruce, ECD Vicki Maguire, Carol Cass (documentary maker) and Fay Weldon (author) with decades of industry experience between them, shared stories of the good, the bad and the ugly.
There’s no exaggeration when I say that the sexism that these women faced in their early years in the industry was astonishing, with several gasps from the audience throughout, of which Carol commented that our naivety was quite amusing to them. To name but a few of these questionable experiences, during an interview at an agency Carol was told that if she’d work at the agency they’d make her cry, while Vicki’s stories included being given money to change her outfit for a meeting and even sexual harassment.
As much as the industry has moved leaps and bounds, there’s still a huge problem with gender, both within agencies and the work we create. The portrayal of gender on the screen is a difficult nut to crack, with the panellists commenting on the narrative of empowerment in advertising. Brands like Nike and Dove boldly speak on women being empowered through their products, of which Vicky funnily commented “I don’t want my carpet cleaner to empower me”. So, as advertisers, how do we find the balance? It’s not as simple as having the man in the kitchen and the women in the garage, flipping gender stereotypes on its head isn’t enough. Women can’t be put in a box, as we’re all so unique and brands need to understand this. The modern women can’t be given a generic message that’s bedazzled and covered in pink glitter. Who are these women that your brand is talking to? Once the brand starts to understand who she is, how she thinks and what she wants, that’s when these women will engage with your brand and your product in an authentic way. We’ll that’s my two cents on it at least.
As a newbie to the industry, it’s always inspiring to hear words of wisdom from other inspirational women in the industry. It’s only through sharing this knowledge that we can learn from the mistakes of the past and create an industry and work that speaks to women, rather than one that speaks at women.