Last Tuesday I attended an event in Bristol Called ‘Ladies that Tweet’ – one of those networking evenings for women who use social media in business to meet, discuss, be inspired and learn some helpful tips about the use of social media in business and marketing.
Obviously, being a women’s event, there was bound to be some talk of the difficulties women face in the workplace, and I realise there are many. There are still huge pay differences between men and women, there is also an enormous difference between the number of men and women in managerial and directorial positions – and this is especially true in the world of marketing.
Before attending the event, I had been reading a report by McKinsey & Company entitled ‘Women at the Top of Corporations: Making it Happen’ (available online) which found, among many worrying statistics regarding employment for women that ‘women are still underrepresented in corporate boards and barely present in executive communities’. Having previously worked for the Equality and Human Rights commission, I have read many such reports.
The issue of gender inequality is a troubling one, not just in management and marketing, but across many career sectors, right across Europe. After the networking (and cocktails – always a bonus!) there were three female speakers from various media backgrounds; an email marketer who runs workshops about online marketing and social media, a sex blogger turned novelist who had been horribly and unfairly hounded and bullied by the press after they publicly revealed her identity, and a woman who had recently started a company to try and change the male dominated marketing world, after being inspired by the hit series, Mad Men (which I am currently obsessed with by the way, and has raised many a gender related debate between me and my partner).
So far, so good.
The email marketer and blogger were both eloquent, professional, and raised some valid points for debate, as well as giving some great advice about handling the media, and making the most out of social media in the world of business, which is, after all, what the event was all about.
However, the speaker from the world of marketing, for want of a better word, shocked me. As did the reactions from other attendees on Twitter after the event, although, given we had just been told about the pitfalls of non-polite social media interaction, maybe they were simply worried about the repercussions of critical comment - as in fact I am in publishing this piece on-line.
I did pause to think about it, especially after the advice given in the event about the dangers of opinion pieces on the web. Also, as it was a networking function, I suppose it would be safer and less hassle to keep my opinion to myself.
However, I am a writer, and the issues raised by this speaker really did both trouble and anger me. I fully expect that many people will disagree, which they are completely free to do, in the same way that I am free to express my opinion. So here it is.
In a word, this woman was simply sexist. Initially, I could see her point. She had worked in marketing companies that were male dominated, and where, as in many marketing agencies, the content produced had been decided, in the main, by men. And regarding Mad Men, I have read some genuinely interesting and well researched discussions on the topic surrounding whether the world of advertising has really changed since Don Draper’s (the main character, if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend you do!) day, i.e., the early sixties.
As a topic of discussion, it was potentially an interesting one. But researched and structured debate this was not.
She opened by asking everyone in the room to raise their hand if they were a feminist. Bearing in mind this is a bunch of women who have come straight from work, who don’t know each other, and, if they were anything like me, currently quite focussed on the bowls of sweets on the table, (I would like to point out the event was brilliantly organised, the venue was lovely, and the other speakers, as well as the attendees were very interesting. It was largely a great event) so, for whatever reason you care to choose, only half the room put their hands up.
Thus began the casual sexism, man bashing, bad research and patronising of women. In my view anyway, as I said, many of the comments on twitter implied that lots of the attendees agreed, and didn’t have a problem with it at all.
The half of the room who didn’t raise a hand were met with the comment; ‘Well that’s just sad. Didn’t you want us to get the vote?’ The speaker then proceeded to profess the freedom of modern women to shout C***, which yes, is true, but totally inappropriate in a meeting about social media, as it would have been if a man had said the same thing.
She also showed a succession of slides which patronised the crap out of men in the same way that she complains they do to women. You know the type of thing, the funny pictures people post of Facebook, like a man has one button you push to get all his behaviours, we have lots. Wonderfully illustrated with a photo of one button, with the word ‘Man’ under it, and a photo of lots of buttons, with the word ‘Woman’ under it. Hilarious and informative, right?
She continued to speak about the way we should market to women because when a man goes in a shop, it’s to get one item, but women like to go with their friends, wander around in a haphazard fashion, like some neon-light befuzzled moth with a credit card, and always ‘with friends so they can ask each other, does my bum look big in this?’
This was illustrated with a floor-plan of a shop and a straight line mapping a man’s linear movement towards his item of choice, juxtaposed with a big wobbly squiggle to illustrate a woman wandering here there and everywhere, distracted, presumably by all the bags, shoes and other pretty, irresistible trinkets.
I’m sure there is some truth to this, but how can you moan about sexist stereotypes and put that up?
This was followed by an image of Mel Gibson shaving his legs in the film ‘What Women Want’. Another great and reliable source to illustrate the real problems women face concerning inequality.
There was also scientific reference, again backed up with a lovely illustration. ‘Men and women use different parts of their brain’.
So far so psychologically tested to be true, in some ways.
‘Men use the right side, and women use the whole thing’.
Hmm, not so well researched.
The problem I had with this whole discussion, and the reason why I felt the need to write something about it, is that it was badly researched, totally contradictory, and belittled the genuine inequality that both women and men face at the hands of sexist, capitalist marketing structures.
In my opinion, many women have an aversion to shouting about being a feminist because it conjures up this sort of thing. Angry, irrational women shouting, stereotyping and man bashing. There is no reasoned debate, little research and a lot of sexism and female chauvinism. And that hurts the cause of real feminists.
I understand feminism to be the desire for equality. And whatever your gender, and however passionate you are about a topic, you should be fair, and assess the evidence. Then you should rationally go about solving the problem.
Marketing is always going to portray people, men and women, in an unrealistic light because it aims to sell you a lifestyle you don’t already have. It also aims to sell you things you don’t need and an image of someone else, who’s prettier/thinner/ healthier/more organised/more stylish/whatever.
That’s capitalism for you.
It also sells to you in the same way this woman did, so I guess judging from the many positive reactions afterward, she’s very good at her job. It bombards you with pictures, distractions, half-baked studies and fictional or misrepresented statistics presented as ‘proper’ science. It also sells you things using catchy little hooks - like calling your company MadWomen, and offering to measure market trends with the patronisingly named ‘Femometer’.
Consistently fair market research should look at and measure the audience over-all and use those stats to target efficiently. However, a biased marketer will be able to sell just as well with this kind of quirky crap.
You can’t condemn one kind of sexist selling and simultaneously replace it with another and expound it as moral and a push for equality.
It is this kind of thing that ensures the difficulties women encounter due to gender stay as they are, or swing entirely the other way so we take over and gain the unfair advantage in the workplace that men currently occupy.
And neither of those options is good enough.
I hope Ladies that Tweet enjoys much future success, as there really were some interesting points raised. I just think they should be careful who they put up to speak, or what was otherwise an interesting evening full of intelligent, interesting and talented women will descend into nonsense.
And that would really be a shame.