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This International Women’s Day, don’t become a victim of token D&I clichés

2 Mar 2020 By Jennifer Pyne

Brands are embracing female empowerment, but they’re so afraid of getting it wrong they fumble and commit ‘self-fulfilling faux pas’, says Jennifer Pyne

Sunday 8 March marks International Women’s Day (IWD). In honour of IWD, I want to draw attention to one of the most insidious forces paralysing female progress in the modern age: tropes – those stereotypical, tale-as-old-as-time characterisation traps that perpetuate a damaging image of who, how and what women should be. The femme fatale. The damsel in distress. The manic pixie dream girl. As women, the expectations these tropes set for us hold us back – yet they persist. 

Except I’m not just talking about tropes from my perspective as a woman, I’m talking about the tropes I see as a communications professional. IWD has become a lightning rod for some of the worst modern-day marketing cliches. For D&I marketers, IWD is the equivalent of the Superbowl or a supermarket holiday advert: that one time of the year where you have licence to exercise your provocative creative muscles to raise awareness and action in support of the plight of women. Except usually the only awareness these executions raise is how token, self-serving and hypocritical most brands can be.

This stuff isn’t easy to communicate. But why is it so hard for brands to add something meaningful to such an important conversation without it landing poorly? We’ve done some research into why D&I issues are so hard to communicate, and there are three common themes. 

First, as much as it shouldn’t be, the mainstreaming of women’s empowerment is still a nascent topic. Brands are trying to find their feet as the body politic reacts to constant developments against a dynamic communications landscape. The reality is, few are getting it right because no one really knows how to do it yet.

It’s also hard to figure out where this stuff ‘fits’. Is it an HR issue? Customer comms? An innovation opportunity? A business challenge? It’s all of the above, and more. But the instinct is to try to assign it to a ‘box’ or department rather than look at it as a holistic, interconnected factor in how a brand operates.

Finally, it’s just really intimidating. At a time where multi-way dialogue happens whether a brand wants it to or not, there are real reputational risks to entering the conversation. So efforts are half-baked. 

A seemingly clever example was when McDonald’s flipped its iconic golden arches into a ‘W’. While attention-grabbing, it was slammed for doing this despite its track record of poor wages for women. But there are also many other examples involving brands across every industry. For instance:
  • State Street Bank, sponsor of the iconic Fearless Girl statue, against a backdrop of a $5m discrimination settlement for female and black employees
  • Tate Modern’s IWD Picasso exhibit, despite Picasso’s well-documented obsession with one-dimensional female tropes
  • NBCUniversal, which switched the station ‘E!’ to ‘She!’ and featured a week of female-focused content, while also being outed for sexual harassment accusations and enforcing silencing NDAs
  • KPMG, releasing a video celebrating female leadership while facing a class action lawsuit for denying promotions to women and penalising them for taking maternity leave
  • Bic South Africa, which asserted women should ‘look like a girl… think like a man’ – no explanation needed for why this is just so bad
  • The Nobel Peace Prize, which tried to honour IWD in 2017 by highlighting that in the history of the prize, women represented a meagre 6 per cent of total winners

It’s great that brands are trying to embrace female empowerment. But it’s as if they’re so afraid of getting it wrong they fumble and inadvertently end up offending the women they are ‘championing’. We’ve coined a new term for this phenomenon: the self-fulfilling faux pas. And the road to the self-fulfilling faux pas is paved with good intentions. 

IWD has its place in the world. Awareness days are important points in time that remind us of the plight of marginalised groups. But before you jump on the IWD bandwagon, I would advise: if you’re going to do it, do it. 

Don’t do something for IWD. Do something to champion women, every day. It’s not about flash-in-the-pan marketing; it’s about building your workplace, your business, your products and your brand to be inclusive by design. 

I may never be able to erase manic pixie dream girl expectations, but if I can inspire clever marketers to resist a token IWD execution, that’s one less trope holding me back – at least professionally.

Jennifer Pyne is brand director at Radley Yeldar and co-author of Demystifying D&I: a practical guide to being inclusive by design in the wilds of modern communications

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