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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 Do the seemingly innocuous bedtime stories I have been reading to my daughters propagate the very same outdated gender stereotypes that were being laid waste by the panel?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.

Changing Perceptions in Women’s Sport

On Monday 26th September there was a picture on the front page of the Guardian showing Manchester City Women celebrating the moment they became WSL Champions. On the front page. Now that is a step in the right direction. Less than a week later, the football club completed the double by winning the Continental Tyres Cup. There wasn't even time to put the champagne back on ice.

Female sporting role models surround us and it is brilliant. But, with all of these successes, it is important to take a step back and assess the impact this is having on women’s sport and, more pertinently, on young girls around the country. It would be difficult to argue that the aforementioned role models aren’t encouraging women to be active. But do they engage those that simply aren’t huge sports fans? Yes, Manchester City Women were on the front page of The Guardian and quite rightly the story focussed on their on-pitch successes. However, would you flick to the back pages to read the full story if you didn’t like football? Would you even notice it on the front page? Maybe not.

Inspiring young girls around the country to play sport can’t only be about the success of elite athletes. Moreover, changing perceptions of women in sport won’t be achieved solely in the back pages of the paper. It is, in fact, this prerequisite for somebody to like sport in order to play it, that might actually be putting people off. Instead, the value of sport and the impact it can have must be communicated in a much broader way which is relatable to all (sports fan or not). Not everybody should require an ambition to be the next Steph Houghton in order for them to feel empowered to kick a football. Young girls should instead want to go and play because the results are more far-reaching, they transcend sport itself. And because their everyday role models (enter mum and dad) are encouraging them to do it. Even mums and dads that don’t have a deeply ingrained passion for sport themselves.

A recent post on the Facebook account of ‘Parenting Girls – Raising Good Women’ argued that parents don't simply pay for their kids to play sports; they pay for the opportunities that sports provides to develop attributes that will serve them well throughout their lives. Respect, teamwork, winning and losing. The fundamental life skills that make up a well-rounded person. A recent ParkLives film by Synergy client Coca-Cola takes this one step further showing that sport can quite simply bring children, parents and communities together.

And the simplicity of this is what makes it the perfect area for brands to explore. It’s far too easy for us to simply tell the story of a female that has defied the odds to reach the pinnacle of her sport. Of course these stories can be incredibly powerful, but they aren’t always relatable. Instead we should be telling the stories of how football, and sport generally, has impacted the day-to-day lives of normal young girls. How it can build their confidence and enrich their social lives. How it has given them the tools to succeed academically. But most importantly, how their parents supported them through this process and encouraged them to play. Because this is a parent’s responsibility.

Which might just be the key.

Parents have a responsibility to encourage their children to be active. They also have a responsibility to change the perceptions of women’s sport with their own children – it should start at home. So let’s encourage them to do it. At the very least, we might make mums and dads think more about the power of sport. At best, we might empower parents to take their daughter to the park to play football, regardless of their ability or previous interest in the sport.

So what is the endgame? Somebody with no interest in sport is impacted by a sporting story. It’s something we tried to achieve when working with SSE on their ‘Dads and Daughters’ series. A football story that is about way more than just football. It’s about family bonding. It’s about overcoming challenges in life. It’s about togetherness, inclusion, equality and being a part of something that can change your life for the better. And it so happens that it couldn’t have happened without two things: dedicated parents and the power of football.

Therefore, the challenge is clear: we must talk to all parents about sport, not just those that are sports fans. And we must engage them with the power sport can have on the everyday lives of their children – regardless of whether or not their daughter might one day be pictured celebrating on the front page of The Guardian.