ASA's rules on gender stereotyping give us a step in right direction
A view from Rachel Pashley

ASA's rules on gender stereotyping give us a step in right direction

The ASA's new rules on gender stereotypes can bring about real change, argues JWT's global board planning director.

What a week to be a woman in the media. First Jodie Whittaker smashed the Tardis-based patriarchy of the Timelords and then the ASA puts out Depictions, Perceptions and Harm.

We don’t get many victories – let alone two in three days – so I’m notching this one up as a week to remember. I’m pretty sure that on Wednesday morning I heard the whole Female Tribes team around the network give a little cheer as the news broke.

But then, as always, the euphoria wears off (or you read just 0.005% of the horrendous comments under the line on any MailOnline article about the good doctor) and you can’t help thinking that daleks won’t be the only enemy she has on her hands: there are still too many of us playing catch up with the idea that ovaries do not get in the way of time travel, working at Nasa, or athletic excellence on the tennis court: please see me after class Mr McEnroe.

Because from our own study, The JWT Women’s Index (9,000 women in 18 countries), 85% of women told us that when it comes to depicting women, the film and advertising world needs to catch up with the real world.

But, unlike gender stereotyping time travel isn’t real (or we’d have already done it) so we have to look at this move by the ASA as a huge, and hugely commendable, step in the right direction.

Because the fact is the creative work we’re pushing out into culture is teaching society, persuading or brainwashing the world that women don’t work, they aren’t powerful or smart, they’re mostly silent and men are hilarious and brilliant at everything: in fact one wonders why women are required at all. And now we have the proof.

Working with the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media our New York office, as part of Female Tribes, we used the Institute’s revolutionary Gender Inclusion Quotient to analyse advertising. The software analyses audio and video media content using machine learning technology, and audio-visual processing technologies to measure screen and speaking time in moving image: to quote The Martian, we "scienced the sh*t" out of this study.

To adapt it to advertising we needed to rethink the criteria, our hypothesis being that unlike the film world, in the advertising world women would get lots of screen time but their characterisation would be stereotyped… you know, standing at the window marvelling at how white the washing has become.

Once we had the technology we worked with Cannes Lions to analyse ten years of Cannes winners. Now this is an important point because, remember, Cannes represents the best of the best. And the results are more shocking than a Zygon in a wardrobe.  

The first key finding, and contrary to our assumptions, women do not get lots of screen time, or really any at all. In fact male characters account for 67% of screentime, they appear twice as often as women, so you’d be more likely to see a dalek on a stair-lift than a woman on set.

When looking at dialogue quality we found that even when women do get to speak, the dialogue contains fewer words, and simpler words, kind of like a Trump tweet. It also seems that in Adland women don’t work, with only 8% of women in ads have a job, compared to the real world where up to 70% of women are gainfully employed.

Men are also twice as likely to provide the laughs (women are not funny) and significantly more likely to be defined by intelligence as part of their character, women I would imagine are too busy weeping silently off set.

And these are the areas in which the report stands to make a huge impact. It says a "tougher line needs to be taken on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which, through their content and context, may be potentially harmful to people. This includes ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes."

Because the unintended consequence of our benign stories that sell soft drinks, cars, washing powder and chocolate is that at the same time they’re informing our unconscious bias, infecting our subconscious minds with ideas of what a leader looks like, a president looks like, what powerful looks like – and it’s not female.

The work of our industry shapes culture, informs how we see the world, our belief systems and ultimately behaviours to yield a powerful cultural ripple effect.

Our Women’s Index Study shows that 60% of women said onscreen female role models had made them be more ambitious or more assertive while 67% of women said that if they saw more women onscreen as leaders it would make it easier for them to become leaders in real life.

So what do we need to do to change things? Well, in the same way as that Zygon in your wardrobe would shock you into action, we all need to take action, to be "awake" to the unconscious bias that exists in our industry. Hiring more female talent and diverse talent will certainly start to disrupt the groupthink and introduce more diversity to our ideas.

But, equally, we have to look to the start of the process, to really interrogate the brief, to look at the audience section (or whatever we choose to call it) and be actively intolerant of stereotyped descriptors: is all childcare performed by women? Are urban professionals more likely to be male? Is Valentine’s day just for straight couples? Yes, we are asking these questions, but perhaps not often enough if our analysis is anything to go by.

The ASA report is a real and tangible move away from the talk to actually fixing the issue and has the chance to make long lasting change. The industry’s sonic screwdriver, if you will.  

Rachel Pashley is global board planning director at J Walter Thompson

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