21st Century Girls

During Engine’s 21st Century Woman event yesterday, surrounded by a collection of clients and colleagues, listening to a captivating panel of women including Stella Creasy MP and Kate Dale of #ThisGirlCan fame, I found myself reminiscing about bedtime stories with my 4-year-old daughter from the previous evening. No, it wasn’t being on the 6th floor of Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road that got me thinking. I was still very much tuned into the discussion on how women are depicted in marketing and popular culture. But my conscience had been pricked by the realisation that I was part of the problem under the spotlight – in the same way that panellist Harriet Hall (Features Editor of Stylist.co.uk) had caught herself asking ‘What’s her name?’ when a friend said she had found a new cleaner. Do the seemingly innocuous bedtime stories I have been reading to my daughters propagate the very same outdated gender stereotypes that were being laid waste by the panel?

So last night, on the eve of International Women’s Day, I decided to check the bookshelves at home. And there it was: gender stereotyping writ large in oversized text and pretty illustrations of domesticated women and hard-working men. Mums doing household chores. Dads fixing things. A preponderance of male central characters. Even the anthropomorphised animal characters were overwhelmingly male and heroic. It was more proof, as if any were needed, of the antiquated way gender roles are depicted in popular culture.Engine’s 21st Century Woman study had a very particular take on who shares blame and who has the responsibility to improve the situation: the marketing community. The research, compiled over 12 months, with input from 1,000 UK women, had some pretty damning evidence of how brands are failing to accurately portray women through marketing. 76% of women think that brands are not representing them properly, and 40% of women cite advertising and the way brands talk to them as one of the most likely reasons to be self-critical.The research also showed that 86% of women enjoy being a woman (yes, that means 14% don’t) but 45% find it difficult, primarily as a result of institutionalised sexism. Marketing at large is not just failing to address the issue of ‘damaging and dangerous gender stereotyping’ (Harriet Hall), but helping embed it in society. According to Stella Creasy, ‘advertisers are the front line of a cultural war’, and most of them seem to be on the wrong side.

Day job aside, as a father of two 21st Century girls, this is all pretty troubling. Until yesterday, I thought my parental efforts against gender stereotyping had been relatively robust. My wife and I chose a neutral colour for the nursery. My daughters are subjected to a fair amount of ‘male’ sports such as cricket and rugby on TV. The All Blacks are their favourite team (it’s more about the "pre-match dancing" than backing the winning team), and if New Zealand are not playing, the 4-year-old will support whoever is wearing blue. I’ve instituted regular ‘cooking lessons with daddy’, which, I tell myself is to make sure they don’t develop gender associations with domestic roles (although if my wife reads this she’ll probably question why that doesn’t apply to the laundry). And I made sure the girls' first trip to a major sporting event was to see professional über-talented women play, at The SSE Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley. I’m not expecting the 1-year-old to have identified any female role models, but it is a memory that will be established in the re-telling.

Granted, the nursery paint colour might ever so slightly be influenced by not knowing what sex our firstborn would be, and there is heavy personal agenda in all the above. I love watching sport. After all, it is part of my job (no, my wife doesn’t buy that line either). In a parallel life I would quite like to have been a chef. But if those personal biases give my daughters a less gendered upbringing and avoid fostering unconscious biases in their little brains, I’m comfortable with the egoism at play.

I’m hoping it will all add up to sense that they can do anything with their lives, without pre-conceived, gender-defined paths. At the moment the 4-year-old self-identifies as a Ninja Turtle and wants to be Leonardo (blue bandana) when she grows up, although I’m wondering if it’s a phase (and now wondering why there aren’t any female ninja turtles...I’m sure the Renaissance had some pretty awesome female role models). She likes tennis, ballet (mixed class), dinosaurs, baking, rugby tackling and anything blue (did I mention that already?), so I'm hoping we've avoided too many gender stereotyping clangers.

The panel discussion highlighted so many areas where I can do more in my day-to-day interactions at home. Bedtime stories is one of them. But if I learnt one thing yesterday above all else, it is that my efforts to avoid gender stereotyping in my daughters' upbringing doesn’t stop when I leave the house for work. It is about making sure any clients or brands I work with reject stereotyping through their marketing and advertising, so the depictions my daughters see challenge the status quo. There was so much sense spoken yesterday, but maybe the panel was wrong about one thing – social media isn’t the front line of female oppression. It’s bedtime stories.

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