21/03/2017 08:10 GMT | Updated 22/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Why Feminism Is Good News For Publishers And Advertisers

It always surprises and angers me to hear people being "accused" of feminism, as if it is something to be ashamed of. Surely something that stands for choice, equality and freedom should be worn as a badge of honour? And before you wonder why a man is writing this piece, I want to be clear that I'm proud to call myself a feminist. Yesterday, I heard a great quote at our MAKERS Advertising Week panel - "men of quality don't fear equality".

All over the world, we're seeing men and women openly take up the mantle to advance gender equality, and in today's uncertain political climate, it's a cause that's firmly gathering pace. From Women's Marches to International Women's Day and "A Day Without a Woman", we're seeing women's rights quite rightly take centre stage. Feminism is unapologetically entering a mainstream era - and I see this as something we should all be celebrating.

Is it fair to say that gender equality is now being viewed more equally, and championed by both sexes? Rather than feeling alienated from the concept of feminism, men are now embracing a sense of responsibility to empower women. According to a 2016 survey by the Fawcett Society, 86% of British men said they supported equality of opportunity for women, while campaigns such as #HeForShe go a long way to engage men as agents of change.

As a man, father and the MD of AOL UK, we need to all push for gender equality and it can't just be a woman's fight on her own. As the actress Emilia Clarke said in her recent blog post for The Huffington Post UK, "when a girl grows up as part of a family that makes no distinction between the opportunities that a daughter has compared to a son, it means she doesn't have any reason to believe she can't accomplish whatever she sets her mind to". I know the kind of world I'd like my daughter to grow up in, and there's no shortcut that will get us there.

With 3.52billion women in the world, we all have an important role to play if we're going to achieve true equality of the sexes. But not only is it a question of right and wrong, it is fundamental to the way we build brands and communicate with our audiences.

Women are more likely than men to use the internet on their mobile phones - women account for the majority (52%) of all UK smartphone internet time. Globally, women control about $20trillion in annual consumer spending, and that figure could climb as high as $28trillion in the next five years. Their $13trillion in total yearly earnings could reach $18trillion in the same period. In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined. Women are also the decision makers in the purchases of 94% of home furnishings, 92% of vacations, 91% of homes, 60% of automobiles and 51% of consumer electronics. The evidence is there for all of us to see, although in reality none of it should come as a surprise.

With Western society placing a stronger focus on women's empowerment, brands need to be reaching women in the right way.

Worryingly, research last year from Unilever found that the issue of stereotyping, conscious or otherwise, is most acute in the portrayal of women. Just 3% of ads feature women in managerial, leadership or professional roles, and many are "disproportionately" represented in domestic roles.

But the tide is turning. From P&G and Nike, to Dove and Sport England's This Girl Can campaign, brands are increasingly becoming aware that women do not relate to stereotyping and are changing their advertising accordingly.

And as brands stand up against the rigid image of femininity, and speak to women as individuals rather than as a homogeneous group, they are looking to platforms and publishers that align with their beliefs and objectives.

Because feminism also represents a powerful opportunity for publishers.

At AOL, we are committed to empowering women through our own portfolio of brands including MAKERS, The Huffington Post and BUILD. We invest in content that inspires, educates, and entertains women across their interests and passions. And the stats prove it's also what our audiences want. As part of All Women Everywhere, our month-long project on HuffPost UK, Emilia Clarke's guest blog had more than 269,000 social interactions from consumers who applauded her stance on what it means to be a woman and equality.

But as brands and publishers look to create more diverse and intelligent content for women, they also need to ensure this movement is reflected in the way they empower the women they employ. We need to walk the walk. The IPA has set targets for the industry's senior management to be 40% female by 2020, and we're still some way off hitting that mark - the current figure for the ad industry stands at 27%. And according to a study last year from City University, the British journalism industry doesn't fare much better at 94% white and 55% male.

At AOL, I have a responsibility to build a legacy that supports zero distinction between men and women. Tim Armstrong, our CEO, has very openly stated that we will have 50:50 women to men ratio in senior leadership positions by 2020. It is crucial that we develop and nurture the existing female talent we have within the business, as well those who we recruit, and make sure all opportunities are open for women to succeed. There are no right answers to how we go about driving the right behaviors, it is going to be different for all businesses and mistakes are going to be made, but that's OK? because change is never smooth but is incredibly exciting. It's not a case of breaking the glass ceiling, but removing it altogether.

During Advertising Week and beyond, we need to reflect on the industry as a whole. We have an obligation to accurately represent women and drive equality through our storytelling. Feminism is not niche and it's not a fad. Equality of the sexes benefits us all - male and female - and it's good news for advertisers and publishers alike.

Stuart Flint is the managing director of AOL UK