THE BLOG

It's Time To Stop Being Neutral On Gender

12/09/2017 13:30

Marketing and advertising industries have played an increasingly important part in the campaign for gender equality. Now they need to get passionate about gender neutrality.

It's a rare moment: as the advertising industry's eternal soul-search and quest for purpose charges on, there are several milestones in gender equality that we can be proud of:

Fearless Girl, the bronze statue created by McCann New York for State Street Global Advisors, stands proud in Wall Street as a way to encourage more financial companies to put women in leadership positions. It is timely, permanent, ridiculously instagrammable and is also one of the most awarded campaigns in history - winning four Grand Prix at Cannes.

Likewise Sport England's This Girl Can campaign kicked off at the beginning of 2015 to promote women in sport. Two years later and it's possible to draw a hereditary line from the campaign to today's success and visibility of women's football, cricket and rugby.

There is a long way to go, progress could be quicker and the road to gender equality is littered with a few too many quickly quashed blips (Beach Body Ready anyone?) But these two campaigns and others have raised awareness, stimulated debate, engaged and shifted mindsets. They show that the advertising industry has been a pioneering voice in the campaign for true gender equality and we can define the zeitgeist that brings about social change.

But what about gender neutrality?

Here, we retreat back into the shade. Not only has our industry neglected to shape and engage with the debate, we've actively propagated the problem. Gender stereotypes inflict everything we do, from an initial audience segmentation to the choice of imagery, right through to the music and voiceovers we use.

Of course, there is a perfectly sensible debate underway as to whether gender neutrality should be dictated to parents as a way of raising their children, but let's at least give them the choice. Walk through any toy store and you'll see the pink and blue areas quite clearly. Look at any ad and it gets worse: there are men's cars and women's cars, ladies' drinks and gentlemen's drinks, female and male careers.

Marketing must catch up. This means no more lazy segmentation, no default to 'let's speak to mums,' and a genuine push on our clients to take gender neutrality seriously.

We must also join and promote the discussion about this subject. Big retailers such as Mothercare and Asda have recently become embroiled in controversies about gender stereotyping but then John Lewis shamed us all and became that rarest of breeds - doers-not-just-sayers - by removing gender labels from their children's clothing. The change is part of a wider effort to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes so as to give consumers and their children more choice when it comes to what to wear.

The retailer's Head Buyer, Caroline Bettis, told the world that John Lewis "...do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within [their] collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear."

Campaign group Let Clothes Be Clothes called the movement "fantastic news" but the outcry on middle England's social media was fast and furious. Piers Morgan, the personification of atavism tweeted "Can we call it John Lewis anymore or does it have to be Joan Lewis?" while a Catholic priest (another bastion of societal change) tweeted that the move was "Wicked beyond comprehension."

This is twaddle. John Lewis has simply given people a genuine choice on what they dress their children in. No longer do purchase decisions have to be based on ingrained stereotypes but instead on the novel idea that we buy a product because we actually like it - because it is an expression of who we are. Gender stereotypes are a barrier to this and by removing them, John Lewis has just made a giant step forward in making choice a reality for parents buying kids clothes. If the marketing industry follows suit, we can make it the norm for everybody.

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