The Gender Agenda in the Business Agenda: of Women’s Empowerment Principles Events and gender equality in marketing

This post was contributed by Dr Wendy Hein, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Management.

How to increase women’s leadership positions and empowerment was central to the recent UN Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEP) Event which I attended earlier this month. These principles are an initiative, mainly adopted by private sector organisations, to work towards equality based on seven fundamental guidelines. The conference brought a range of leading companies, policy-makers, non-profit organisations and business educators together. The WEP’s main message for equality is that it ‘means business’. Equality is, in fact, seen to drive growth and potential within organisations. There is a resulting importance in retaining talent and maintaining women within the value creation process, to enable them to reach ‘the top’. This certainly touches on some important issues of contemporary work life. In this particular event, the need to mobilise men to participate in the necessary changes was also heard loud and clear. If we are looking to change existing gender dynamics and structures, we should incorporate those who are occupying ‘top spots’, who tend to be men.

Measuring talent, value and work

Yet, more fundamental challenges of how we measure talent, what we perceive as ‘value’, what constitutes ‘work’, or of the cultures that some companies are built on remained implicit. The language in the above paragraph already reflects a culture of organisations that exist from the ‘top’; that are competitive and fast-paced. Rather than seeking to integrate women into organisations that often represent masculine values, and asking them to embrace these, is there not more that women can and should do? Also, when it comes to women’s working lives, all too often it is not just about ‘business’, but also about the ‘personal’. Men’s private lives can certainly play a role at work, but particularly when it comes to maternity and motherhood, women’s families and their commitment to a home life often enter the work arena. Considering the blurring of these lives, and a call for companies to support women and men at work, shouldn’t there also be further support of home life in a similarly equal way? Shouldn’t a mother, father or partner be as valued as the worker? Then we also come to think of those who do not have a job, either in any of these great companies, or those who do not work – what kind of support can they hope for? And if you were thinking of organisations in the UK, change the context into emerging and developing countries – what support do women and men have there for receiving an education, getting work and managing a ‘home’? It just shows how our society can be perceived to value and privilege those who are in ‘producing’ positions – but is being a mother or father not some type of ‘job’ or ‘production’?

The intersection of work culture and private lives

From my own perspective as a marketing and consumer researcher, I find the issues of work cultures and organisations meeting private lives all the more interesting. As we become involved in programmes and projects through our roles as business researchers and educators, we recognise that marketing is one area where the public blurs with the private, business with the personal, and production with consumption. Think about it: the marketing industry has its own cultures – whether we are looking at marketing departments within certain companies, marketing entrepreneurs or advertising agency culture. Marketing ‘produces’, and in very gendered ways. This becomes even clearer through initiatives such as those by Kat Gordon that seek to create a contrast to the well-documented male ‘locker room’ ad agency cultures. Kat is founder of the “3% Conference” (3% being the number of female creative directors in advertising agencies) and founder of the marketing agency ‘Maternal Instinct’, which specialises in marketing for mothers, by women. She has built her reputation on understanding female consumers (who some would argue form the majority of consumers), based on her experience that marketing for these consumers is often produced by men.

Marketing as an educational tool

Now, think about this: most ads that tell women how to be beautiful (‘you’re worth it’), successful, slim, attractive, or taking care of family, house and home, are made by men. On the other hand, these men also tell other men how to shave, how to ‘fool the missus’ into believing they are vacuuming the house (when really they are in the pub), and how a regular teenager can be chased by a herd of super-model women. Of course, I am exaggerating and these are not all the images that advertising and popular culture produces… but, there are quite a few of them. Considering the number of ads and messages that we are exposed to on a daily basis marketing is placed in quite a powerful position to educate mass audiences on gender. This then is another characteristic of marketing – it does not just address the workers of one company or organisation, but can spread much wider. Wouldn’t you think that gender equality plays a more central role here? Then again, what does gender equality mean in marketing?

We started this excursion from the marketing producer side, but clearly marketing also plays a role on the consumer side. Women and men struggle on a daily basis to live their lives through and around stereotypes often perpetuated by marketing discourse, popular culture, and social structures influenced by these. Marketing pervades our public and private lives. It tells us how to be good/bad mothers, good/bad partners, good/bad men and women, often through a creation of norms based on inclusion and exclusion. Doesn’t this clash with our understanding of equality?

Gender in management education

It is surprising to see then how some companies have focused their efforts on creating gender equality as part of internal structures or policies, when our surroundings and homes are often filled with images, discourses and practices that are frequently far from equal. What’s more, if we understand the centrality of gender in business and management (as advocated by UN principles), it is also surprising to see how often gender is (not) taught as part of management education. This however, we can change.

As part of a group of academics from across the globe who cover different business and management disciplines, I am involved in collating material, research, experiences and perspectives on gender education, in my case within the marketing discipline. To view the growing repository of teaching material that members of the PRME working group on gender equality have put together, please visit this site. This work is open to ideas, support and external contributions, so please feel free to share stories, practices (both from marketing producers and educators) or resources.

We hope this initiative leads to a re-thinking of business and management schools, and to placing gender in a more central place across all of its  these disciplines. We also hope to inspire both women and men to challenge existing structures they may encounter in their work AND home lives, and to create new images, discourses and practices that can be gender aware.

Let’s not let this gender agenda fade, for the sake of both women and men, home and work lives, in emerging and developed countries. Whether it’s business or personal, men’s or women’s day, this is too important for all of us to ignore.

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One thought on “The Gender Agenda in the Business Agenda: of Women’s Empowerment Principles Events and gender equality in marketing

  1. Thanks Wendy,
    A really interesting and informative post, and it is good to see concerted international effort on this. We all want to live in a better society that would result. However, I still sense that we are trapped in a gender paradigm, which paradoxically is preventing us from moving forward. If we approach the problem from % men vs women, I just don;’t see us getting beyond the “glacial progress”. Marketing, corporate structures and politics force us into a narrower gender-based paradigm. Our leadership models and assessment tools are all researched on men. The percentage game is forcing women to behave like men, by going on “assertiveness training”, networking events and “political awareness” workshops. Most women I know find this persecutory in nature.
    What the current paradigm represses is a broader and more balanced view about other forms of power, such as empathy, insight, caring, connectedness, and sustainability. Until we start valuing these things, it is not just most women who are excluded, but different types of men too.
    The reality is, and I think Carl Jung understood this best, is that all humans are a mix of both masculine and feminine persona, and the real answer lies in recognizing a healthy balance between the two amongst all communities, and particular leadership teams. We have to start I think, by valuing a more diverse understanding of the human persona, and recognizing that a man and woman comprises both the masculine and feminine value in some measure.

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