Grab paper and a pen and scribble down all the words that come to mind when you hear the word "woman." Then do the same for the word "man." Don't think about it, just write. Ignore the part of your brain trying to censor your immediate assumptions. You have thirty seconds. Go!
So what have you got? We're all enlightened twenty-first century human beings, so I'm not expecting a perfect split of weak and strong; cleaning and DIY; dresses and ties. But if you really squashed your conscious brain and let your subconscious rip, I'll bet you've ended up with some pretty painful stereotypes.
Even if we try to pretend otherwise, we've all been programmed by the world around us to assign certain traits and occupations to men and women. These perceptions are shaped, yes, a little by nature - but above all they are shaped by nurture, by the environment in which we grow. We internalise ideas about gender roles and stereotypes from the examples we see around us, in real life and in the media, and a major source of those ideas is advertising. That's why it's really exciting the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has released a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, along with recommendations on how to better regulate potentially harmful use of stereotypes.
So what's so bad about gender stereotypes?
Research from Girlguiding's 2017 Girls' Attitudes Survey has revealed nearly half of girls (47%) aged 11-21 have seen stereotypical images of men and women which make them feel less confident to do what they want. The same research found 93% of girls aged 11-21 think the advertising industry should stop using gender stereotypes of women and men.
I know when I was younger the adverts I saw definitely had an impact on the way I viewed my body and those of other women. The thin, airbrushed women I saw, with huge breasts and perfect hair, seemed alien to my ten-year-old self. Although I never succumbed to any direct pressure to cater to these images, I'm still unlearning attitudes about women's bodies I learnt directly from the media which has surrounded me my whole life.
The sexualisation of women's bodies in order to sell products is widespread and hugely damaging. Whether it's unnecessary exposure of body parts or suggestive imagery, the reduction of women to mere sex objects is a worrying trend.
Certainly for me, as a young woman, this sexualisation makes me deeply uncomfortable. It's so frustrating to live in a society which uses the bare legs, breasts and buttocks of women to sell everything from sandwiches to deodorant, but which brands any woman who wears a short skirt or low-cut top a "slut". By reducing women to just their bodies, we rob them of their humanity and send the message that their sex appeal is more important than anything else.
The drip-drip effect of adverts means we often don't realise how much they affect our behaviour and our psyche. This is especially true for children, who are vulnerable because they don't have the critical analysis skills adults do, and because they're still developing their sense of identity. When adverts and other media consistently present men and women in stereotypical roles, it can seriously affect our kids' expectations about appropriate gender behaviour. We're limiting what children feel happy and confident doing, and that's got to be wrong.
Using gender stereotypes doesn't just limit us to a set of acceptable behaviours, it also vilifies those who refuse to conform, leading to bullying and discrimination, especially in schoolchildren. For boys, for example, failure to act "like a man" is cause for shame and ridicule.
By limiting ourselves to stereotypes about men and women, we also fail to recognise those who do not identify within the gender binary, and perpetuate a binary culture of extreme masculinity and femininity. In reality, few people conform fully to one stereotype or the other - continuing to use them is damaging not just for non-binary individuals but also the vast majority of us who fall somewhere between the two extremes.
So I welcome the ASA's report, which acknowledges gender stereotypes cause harm by 'negatively restricting how people see themselves.' The report suggests new standards be introduced to better regulate gender stereotyping in adverts. I'd also like to see a greater emphasis on diversity in adverts, especially when it comes to race and body type. It's not enough just to tackle the roles we see men and women in - we also need to challenge the default settings (young, thin, white, able-bodied) and better represent the vast, beautiful array of bodies that exist. My hope is these standards will encourage advertisers to challenge stereotypes and, as a result, help remove some of the pressure on children and young people to conform.