If We Are Serious About Progress Gender Stereotypes Must Be Challenged Wherever They Appear

Adverts are the wallpaper of our society so it’s only appropriate regulation prevents them from reflecting a world where gender inequalities are inevitable, The Fawcett Society's Ella Smillie writes.

The ASA has announced it is banning two ads under its new rule to prevent gender stereotypes causing harm.

The first, a Volkswagen ad shows the people of the future carrying out extraordinary feats, except they’re all men. Wait, there is a woman! She’s… sitting on a bench next to a pram. Oh. So this tells us that while men like adventure, women are predisposed to nurture.

The second ad, for Philadelphia, depicts men caring for their offspring, which seems like progress compared to the ads of yesteryear. But, oh dear, they’re totally incompetent at this parenting lark – let’s not mention this to mum, the ad tells us. Oddly, you never see men in ads depicted as being this hapless in the boardroom, or behind the steering wheel, only ever in the context of housework or childcare – weird.

“Ad regulation is a big part of preventing children from internalising gender stereotypes and absorbing the limitations that go hand in hand with them”

There’s no doubt some commentators will decry the ASA’s decision to ban these ads as “political correctness gone mad”. What’s the harm, they will argue, in a 30-second advert showing a woman with a pram, or a clueless dad losing track of his kids for a few minutes.

Happily, this is where the evidence helps us out. The ASA’s new rule follows a comprehensive review, which identified real-world harms and their inextricable link with gender stereotypes.

We still live in a world where women are missing from boardrooms, men suffer in silence with mental health problems and girls and boys develop different aspirations from an early age based on what they think is permitted for their gender. So, we know these inequalities exist, they are multiple and the harm they generate can be physical, financial or emotional.

These inequalities are reinforced by the attitudes of peers, teachers and family members – themselves informed by ads and the media, which too often reflect a tired world order. One where men are breadwinners and women are chained to the kitchen sink, while little boys climb trees and little girls only ever play with dolls.

In other words, gender stereotypes.

So, if we’re really serious about closing the gender pay gap, achieving equal parental leave for dads, getting equal representation in public office and all those things that we know will benefit society and the economy, we need to get serious about challenging gender stereotypes wherever they appear.

Ad regulation is a big part of preventing children from internalising gender stereotypes and absorbing the limitations that go hand in hand with them, which is why we fully support the new rule from the ASA. Ad regulation won’t change the world, but ads are part of the wallpaper of our society; they form the backdrop to our lives and can either reflect our reality back to us or sell us a set of aspirations. So it’s only appropriate that they are regulated to prevent them from reflecting or selling a world where a whole raft of gender inequalities are inevitable, where individuals are denied the opportunity to pursue their passions and aspirations and where we all fit neatly into predetermined boxes.

The ASA has shown today that this will involve difficult decisions and judgement calls. Its third ruling was to not ban an ad for Buxton Water. The only woman in the ad stands out as, guess what, a ballerina, while the drummer and the rower are both men. Sigh. But the ASA has allowed the ad because it tells the story of three individuals who’ve dedicated their lives to a singular talent, and worked hard to get to the top of their game. The ballerina isn’t passive, timid or just there for decorative purposes – she’s found something she can excel at and pushes herself to her limits. And so, the ASA has decided that within that context, the stereotyping doesn’t breach the rule. Which just goes to show that this isn’t PC gone mad – this is careful, evidence-based deliberation applied to each case on its merits.

And more than that perhaps, it reminds us that work or roles that are associated with men or women are always more complicated than a stereotype, we’re all just people in the world, trying to live our lives and sweating it out behind the scenes.

Ella Smillie is head of policy and campaigns at The Fawcett Society


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