gender equal marketing & communication

Cat Wildman & Nicole Ponsford 2019

A company which truly values gender equality will make sure it runs through everything they do, everything they sell and everything they say.

Any communication that a company puts into the public domain, tells potential customers and employees something about who you are as a business. The steps below can be applied to any and all messages your company makes public, no matter how small. Whether recruiting to fill job roles, advertising your products, curating your social media presence, or raising awareness of your company or brand. If you believe in gender equality then it should be in everything you do.


1. Remove all gender stereotypes

Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) announced that, from June 2019, ads will no longer be able to depict harmful gender stereotypes.

Their Guiding principles on depicting gender stereotypes say:

Ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles e.g. a woman cleaning the house or a man doing DIY, or displaying gender-stereotypical characteristics e.g. a man being assertive or a woman being sensitive to others’ needs, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics are:

  • Always uniquely associated with one gender

  • The only options available to one gender

  • Never carried out or displayed by another gender

The easiest way to make sure you are doing the “right thing” is to show both genders doing the same thing; a male and a female using each of your products/performing a role/doing a task avoids any risk of it appearing as though gender stereotyping is taking place.

Johnson’s are doing a good job of this on their Johnsons Baby website, which shows men playing an equal role in childcare.

Being Gender Equal does not just mean equal numbers of males and females - there are many companies who have added women to their marketing materials yet still have them performing traditional stereotypical roles (female doing laundry at home / male chef at work / female cleaning the toilets / male in a smart shirt wiping a table front-of-house). It’s stereotypes like these which, when shown side-by-side, add to the so-called “drip drip” effect, seeping into public consciousness from hundreds of sources on a daily basis.

If you are recruiting, show equal numbers of males and females working in the same roles. If you are trying to recruit more women like the London Fire Brigade, show women front and centre performing the role.

The  Johnsons Baby  website shows men playing an equal role in childcare

The Johnsons Baby website shows men playing an equal role in childcare

If you are recruiting more women like the  London Fire Brigade , show women.

If you are recruiting more women like the London Fire Brigade, show women.

2. 2. Smash Stereotypes (and you might start a movement)

Going a step further than just avoiding tired stereotypes, many companies are setting themselves apart by turning gender stereotypes completely on their heads and creating or supporting movements in the process.

In 2019 Brand Genetics published a report What Women Want which looked at what women want from marketing in a #MeToo era. The conclusion in their report was writ large: Women don’t want to be limited by stereotypes:

“Fundamentally, women don’t want to be limited by stereotypes and are actively rejecting the notion they must fit into a binary world of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’.”

“The most ‘real’ dynamic and exciting expressions of femininity we see encourage women to build on the positive strengths of their individual characters, whether or not they are traditionally ‘feminine’ traits. By throwing off the constraints of reductive gender codes, they joyously celebrate their femininity on their own terms” Brand Genetics

The stereotype smashing marketing and communication of Heist have met with wide approval on all platforms and in the press. Their mission is written clearly for customers to see and it runs through everything the brand says and does. In addition to featuring a diverse selection of female models, they also dedicate a whole section of their website to their mission of smashing stereotypes and affecting real change towards equality.

Bumble, a dating app where women make the first move are blazing a trail in the technology space. Their mission is clear “There’s no equality without respect, and that’s where all healthy relationships start. To challenge outdated heterosexual norms, women make the first move on Bumble.” Bumble are another brand walking their talk and contributing towards equality by getting heavily involved in activities specifically designed to achieve gender equality.

Nike have been relying on smashing stereotypes and standing for change to power their campaigns for years and their recent Dream Crazier campaign focuses directly on smashing gender stereotypes. Nike’s Diversity and Inclusion values run strongly through what they do with regular messaging and diverse imagery backing them up in the majority of their communications.

Read: Brand Genetics  What Women Want

Read: Brand Genetics What Women Want

Heist  have met with wide approval on all platforms and in the press

Heist have met with wide approval on all platforms and in the press

Bumble , a dating app where women make the first move

Bumble, a dating app where women make the first move

Nike  smashing stereotypes and standing for change

Nike smashing stereotypes and standing for change

3. Walk your talk

Your audience are not going to be fooled by a pretence at gender equality. If you are planning on generating publicity off the back of a campaign which features gender equality, everything the business is doing should reflect that the company holds gender equality as a value.

Gillette launched a stereotype smashing advert in 2019 which has been watched over 30 million times. Gillette’s website features a blog in which their product messaging is interspersed with interviews with male celebrities talking about their role models. They have partnered with the Building A Better Man project, which seeks to reduce violent behaviour in men, and The Boys and Girls Club of America, which helps young men develop better social and communication skills. Gillette are also donating $1m (around £778,000) a year for the next three years to charities aimed at supporting men. Gillette’s social media presence is also in accordance with the powerful message that they put out to the world.

The values underpinning this public stance are laid out on the P&G website. They are based on:

  • RESPECT – Demonstrating respect and fostering inclusivity for all, including genders, races, religions and orientations.

  • ACCOUNTABILITY – Ending phrases like “Boys Will Be Boys” and eliminating the justification of bad behaviour.

  • ROLE MODELLING - Inspiring men to help create a new standard for boys to admire. We want boys to see and admire traits like honesty, integrity, hard work, empathy and respect – words that people across the U.S. use when describing what a great man looks like.

By taking this stance, Gillette may have lost a few customers due to (wilful or accidental) misinterpretation of its original advert. However we’d bet that the customers it has retained and gained are in the precise demographic that they have been targeting with their 2019 campaign. These loyal customers may actually be more valuable to Gillette than the ones that have churned; studies have shown that it is 6 to 7 times cheaper to create a loyal base out of current customers than trying to reach out to new ones. And shared values are an important part of building this loyalty

“Of those consumers who said that they had a strong brand relationship, 64% cited shared values as the primary reason.” — (Harvard Business Review)

“Emotional attachments to brands certainly do exist, but that connection typically starts with a ‘shared value’ that consumers believe they hold in common with the brand.” — Aaron Lottonn, CEB

Gillette’s  social media  presence is in accordance with the message.

Gillette’s social media presence is in accordance with the message.

Gillette® Campaign Inspires Men to Re-Examine  What It Means to Be Their Best

Gillette® Campaign Inspires Men to Re-Examine What It Means to Be Their Best

4. Know your audience (and more importantly, your customer)

There’s a very high chance your customer could be a woman. According to M2W® women control 85% of all purchasing in virtually every category, adding up to a massive $20 Trillion in world-wide spending.

The M2W® Fast Facts report breaks down this global female-controlled spending as follows:

  • 93% Food

  • 93% OTC Pharmaceuticals

  • 92% Vacations

  • 91% of New Homes

  • 89% Bank Accounts

  • 80% Healthcare

  • 66% PCs

  • 65% New Cars

  • 58% of Total Online Spending

In an article about the same report, The Guardian concluded that focussing on women is probably a safe bet for any business to make:

“Marketing spend is a significant and sometimes risky investment for small businesses, but regardless of business type (business-to-business or business-to-consumer) focusing your marketing efforts on targeting women could be a real game-changer.” The Guardian

Much marketing today, especially of traditionally male-associated items (like cars) is still male focussed. Jo Ellen Gryzb, author of The Nice Factor, the art of saying no and Director of Impact Factory says

“As a woman (and small business owner as it happens) I am still disappointed at how male-centric marketing is for so many products and services, considering the increasing purchasing power and potential influence of women. What I am aware of in myself is that I often skip over or ignore marketing aimed at men even if I'm interested in the specific product because part of me says, "that's got nothing to do with me."

I am currently in the market for a new car and every piece of marketing, brochures, ads, internet sites are pretty consistently aimed at men (or young people), neither of which I am.

Marketing to women is a good idea. Or even if not specifically to women, market to be more inclusive so that your marketing appeals to both men and women.

I might even buy a car from you if you do!”

With the stark statistics about the purchasing power of today’s women in mind, making the decision to be more gender equal seems like a no-brainer. Continuing to stick to stereotypes is not only bad for business, it could also be bad for your reputation…

Covering the Women in the World 2017 event, The Drum reported Madonna Badger, chief creative officer at ad agency Badger & Winters’ reaction to a campaign from high-end shoe company Stuart Weitzman. The campaign used three naked supermodels in what Badger referred to as “an effort that looks very much like an advertisement from a bygone era”. Badger remarked, “It’s three of the most powerful supermodels in the world reduced to three objects wearing shoes,”. Badger, one of the most powerful women in advertising, then voiced an incredibly impactful call to action to women “I can’t stress enough the power we have as women to make economic choices…we control over 75% of [spend for] all household products. We have that power and we have to use it.”

Badger launched the #WomenNotObjects movement in 2015 and released this powerful video at the extremely high profile Cannes Lions event in 2016.

Get your message wrong or fail the “equality test” and you risk your audience not only voting with their feet, but also voicing their objections loudly, and very publicly.

In 2012 HuffPost published the worst ads for women, featuring some toe-curlingly sexist and outright insulting ads that many would fail to believe passed the initial ideas stage let-alone got created. Since then many annual lists have been published and always the take-home message is the same - don’t insult your audience. People are more aware of gender inequality, more attuned to dangerous stereotypes and more willing to speak up about something they find offensive, than ever before.

Consider the message you are sending with your ad, message, social media post or your press release. Your customers will receive your message and within seconds, decide the following:

  • Is this for me? (Do I identify with any of these characters? does the scenario resonate with me?)

  • How does it make me feel about myself? (Does it reflect my personal beliefs and views?)

  • What message is it giving me? (Do I want to take action off the back of this message?)

Look at your message through the eyes of every possible customer, with every protected characteristic. The easiest way to do this of course, is to make sure that your company, and the people communicating on its behalf, are as diverse as your audience.

5. Avoid hyper-masculine, objectifying and over-sexualised images

Perceptions of femininity and masculinity have shifted over the last 100 years. Most recently, the #MeToo movement, and the work being done by thousands of businesses to close UK gender pay gaps has helped catalyse social change by challenging perceptions of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. This, coupled with the increasing concern over male mental health and suicide rates has meant that as a society we are less certain about what it means to be a man, or woman than ever before. As a result, gender roles are being openly challenged and one result is the wide rejection of gender stereotypes, “hyper-masculinity” and exploitation of women in media, advertising and Marketing.

Even with attitudes changing and the drive towards equality gathering pace, Hyper-masculine images and tone and the exploitation of women in mass media to sell products is, unfortunately, still an everyday fact.

Unrealistic portrayal of females is bad for business

Companies who value gender equality and have broken away from damaging hyper-gendering and “sexualisaton” may also have an carved themselves an edge over their competitors. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) published research proving that ads in which women and girls are accurately portrayed generate significantly more awareness, recall, and purchase intent than ads in which they are not. With the knowledge that women control over 75% of today’s spending, the conclusion can be drawn that unrealistic portrayal of females is bad for business.

“Forty percent of women don’t identify with the women they see in ads; yet women make 85 percent of all consumer purchase decisions. We are all trying to become more customer-centric and these data show we have a distance to go. CMOs have an obligation to maximize marketing ROI and seize control over their brand by eliminating bias in their ads and ensuring their media buys include environments in which women and girls are portrayed the way they really are.” Stephen Quinn, ANA AFE chairman

In 2019 Brand Genetics published a report What Women Want which looked at what women want from marketing in a #MeToo era. One of the answers in their commentary was “women have had enough of lazy, band wagonning behaviours and have no hesitation in calling out tokenistic or patronizing behaviours.”

Hypermasculinity: Detrimental to both men and society at large

The term “hyper-masculinity” first appeared in a 1984 study by Donald Mosher. According to Mosher, hypermasculinity consists of three factors:

  • callous sexual attitudes toward women

  • the belief that violence is manly

  • the experience of danger as exciting

Research published in the journal Sex Roles examining the use of hyper-masculinity in magazine advertising found that more than half of advertising in men’s magazines supported the idea of hyper-masculinity.

A 2012 study concluded that images in the media are the most important factor influencing hyper-masculine behaviour, stating:

"After all, media does not only reflect cultural norms but can and does transform social reality"

Most recently the idea of Hyper-masculinity has been rebranded. “Toxic” was Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2018, and the conversation shows no sign of dying down in 2019. In the span of a week, Gillette and the American Psychological Association (APA) came out with stances on masculinity - specifically “traditional” masculinity.

The APA realised it is not just females who are harmed by stereotypes, saying:

“something is amiss for men as well. Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims. They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s. Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school—especially boys of color.”

APA’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men strive to recognise and address these problems in boys and men and draws on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socialising boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.

Sexualisation as a sales tool is being rejected, especially when applied to children

We’ve all heard the phrase “sex sells”, and unfortunately it’s still being used as a sales tool today. M.-E Kang examined the advertisements in women's magazines and found out that nude or partially nude images of women increased nearly 30% from 1979 to 1991. Research conducted by Eric Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner on media from 1967–2009 found that the frequency of sexualized images of men and women has increased and that women are increasingly likely to be hypersexualized, but men are not.

In a recent analysis in the US, it was found that almost 30% of the clothing items available for pre-teen girls on the websites of 15 national shops had sexualizing characteristics.

If you want to attract customers who believe in gender equality and if you are looking at becoming a more gender equal company yourself, then stay away from sex as a sales tool all together. Sex, cartoonified, hyperfeminine imagery, unrealistic body types and anything that could be construed as objectification of women should be completely avoided.

6. Choose colours carefully (especially pink and blue)

If it’s gender equality is your aim, steer completely clear of using any kind of pink-for-females and blue-for-males combination. By themselves, pink and blue are fine but when used together to represent males and females, it will likely be met with disapproval.

“Marketing has historically depicted women through a simplistic lens of femininity. This has been typified as ‘Pink it and Shrink it’. Recent examples of this approach include Bic’s pink and purple pens “for her”; Dell’s cutesy laptop Della; Pritt Sticks Just 4 Girls; or Cadbury's Crispello chocolate bar 'for women’ But ‘pink’ is not a strategy, especially today, as femininity is more political than ever and women are increasingly active in rejecting lazy and stereotypical portrayals of gender.” Brand Genetics What Women Want

Parents are more aware than ever about the so-called “pink blue divide”. Every conceivable objection to this divide has sprung up in recent years with activists campaigning on Twitter and Instagram. Charities and not for profits have dedicated themselves to stopping the divide, and hours of TED talks exist to explaining how the “pinkification” of girls and the too-early “masculinisation” of boys are the very start of the pathways carved out for decades that have led to the gender imbalance we see in the world today.


7. Call out the fact that you believe in equality

The fact that you believe in equality shouldn’t be confined to your website footer or to an obscure tab on your corporate website. The companies leading the charge like Nike, Bumble, Glossier and Gillette are using their belief in equality as a sales tool - and it’s working.

If you have a GEC Badge, display it proudly and publicly on marketing materials including your website. If you don’t yet have a badge, sign the Gender Equality Charter today and let us know you want one.

Get added to The GEC’s Directory, an index of Gender Equal Settings and Businesses, which was created so that potential employees and customers who are looking for businesses that share their values, can easily find you.

8. Check your text

Run all your, marketing, advertising and job description text through a bias indicator. Each and every type of communication you are putting into the public domain needs to be crafted carefully. Something as simple as a job posting can be gendered, run text through a free, online gender decoder, to make sure you are not letting language become a barrier to business.  

9. Watch out for your own blind spots

To you, it may be just a picture or a paragraph, but to others and crucially to your target audience, it may be sending a negative message.

Research by The Geena Davis Institute found that women consistently accounted for only about one third of all characters in advertising. In 2006, 33.9% of characters were women. Ten years later, the figure had barely budged, reaching only 36.9%.

“We assumed that in advertising, given that women dominate purchasing, that commercials would have much greater female representation. To find out the reverse was quite surprising.” Madeline Di Nonno of the Geena Davis Institute

Lack of diversity loses every time with females of colour facing extremely narrow stereotypical representation in advertising media. In 2016 the BBC reported on a GAP Kids advert which came under fire immediately upon launch:

“It's the tall white girl resting her arm on the head of the shorter black girl that has triggered the controversy. For some it's insulting and, if not intentionally racist, at least reflective of a lack of thought on Gap's part (hence the term "passive" racism).” The BBC

The Huffington Post, published an article about the same advert by Zeba Blay who said:

"My initial reaction was not "this is racist!", but that it was certainly a bad PR move.” She added “And yet, it's unfair to say that the people who do take issue with the photo are simply overreacting. Because it's not the pose itself that is the problem, but the context in which it is delivered.” “In this case, that messaging is construed by many as a black girl being inferior to her white counterparts.” “the fact that so many people have protested the ad speaks to a reality that cannot be ignored.” Zeba Blay Huffington Post

In 2018 H&M was branded racist after they published a picture on their website of a young black boy wearing a green sweatshirt with the words: “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”

Many referenced the fact that “monkey” is often used as a racial slur, with one person writing “for black people, the term is loaded”. H&M took down the advert and apologised.

Hurtful and bad-for-business mistakes like this are another reason why diversity in companies is so important. Kubi Springer, founder of global branding agency She Builds Brands told the BBC that despite adverts being looked at by lots of people before they make it to the public, a "lack of diversity" in advertising agencies means things can be missed.

"I wouldn't go as far as to say [brands are making] innocent mistakes, but also wouldn't go as far as Chance the Rapper and say they are being deliberately racist.

"You need people at management and senior manager level that are diverse - and that's both ethnicity, as well as the LGBT community, as well as women who will say 'Actually this might offend a particular demographic and maybe you should think about this again'."

The best way to cover blind spots is to make sure that your own company is as diverse as your audience, and to involve your company in the creation of your products and communications or at the very least, customer test your communications on your company before they cause hurt in the public domain.

10. Customer test

Companies who want to appeal to an audience that believes in gender equality must do so authentically. The first step is to deeply understand the aspirations and goals of the audience it is wishing to connect with. The best way of doing this is by asking them directly.

Younger brands like Glossier, Heist and Bumble and older brands like Nike and Gillette have all cottoned onto the fact that to build a product that customers will truly love, they need to be powered by their customers. Each of these brands has tapped into a specific problem their customers are facing and deeply understands the reasons the problem exists. They then set about trying to solve them. Each of these brands also openly shares their customers’ values - one without the other would be inauthentic.

One of the first companies to hand the reins over to its customers was Mumsnet, which is entirely powered by customer engagement.

Founder Justine Roberts was deeply aware of the problem being faced by her customers because she was living it, and she built the entire brand with her customers’ problems in mind Roberts told The Guardian

“Even with the design of the site, we wanted not to make it glossy. It was blue and green not pink and purple, it was big writing because everybody was tired, and it was definitely not about how to get your body back.” Mumsnet Founder Justine Roberts | The Guardian

Companies like Disney have cottoned onto the fact that customers want advice from “someone like me” before making purchasing decisions. They launched Walt Disney World Moms Panel; A selected group of Disney World veteran mums answer questions from consumers who are planning Disney holidays.

The GEC offers customer testing! We have over 3000 people in our network, who believe passionately in gender equality including experts in all areas from authors to professors, teachers to parents. Contact us and let us know what type of customer panel you need and we can create one for you - and arrange testing.