Last week was somber, heart-wrenching and anxiety-inducing for so many reasons. It started with International Women’s Day to celebrate being bold with Choose to Challenge; by Tuesday we had a woman being called out for being brave enough to speak about her mental health and  by Friday we had the horrific news and confirmation about Sarah Everard. All of these events have been followed by some incredible sisterhood, solidarity and support but also backlash because of women speaking out, such as #NotAllMen trending on Twitter and opinions such as ‘women shouldn’t walk home alone at night’. We got thinking about what we can challenge in our industry, on a micro level – where we can take a stand and call out small things that are contributing to the bigger picture of misogyny.

A few weeks ago, I spotted a logo that portrayed a women in a 1950’s style stance (think Marlin Monroe), in a dress for a cleaning company. It reminded me of the Covid advert the government put out recently with illustrations showing only women doing household chores. Amazon has also been called out for this, using only pictures of women modelling items such as hoovers, mops and dusters.

People may call this out for ‘just being an advert’; but what about the bigger picture – what does using stereotypes in advertising contribute to? It contributes to the bigger picture of society, where we are and the inequalities that still exist. Ask yourself – what do stereotypical adverts say to the next generation? What does it say to the aspirations of young girls, and what does it teach young boys? This narrative has to change.

I am writing this blog for my nieces, my nephews, my sisters. Advertisers and designers, please stop and think. I wrote a blog two years ago on using gender stereotypical colours in advertising. Pink and blue was created by capitalism. Pink or blue isn’t the choice of young children, before a certain age they have no concept of gender roles.

Gender roles are changing, times have changed and gender does not define a person. Why are archaic designs still being created today, in the public realm? Because it is easy, cheap, takes no thought; or do they live in a cave? Using cliches particularly of gender stereotypes is an approach that treats women as an ‘afterthought’.

Diagram showing the pyramid of sexual violence which highlights how sexual violence operates on a spectrum, how damaging hateful beliefs can be, as they are at the root of many violent and problematic behaviours.

Why is it a problem?

  1. It’s creating assumptions: have you spoken to your audience? Have you thought about cultural appropriation, representation and relevance?
  2. We are not all making purchase decisions based on our gender. Using stereotypes within branding can be detrimental to your brand and alienate customers.
  3. It shows you have not looked for further insights about (or spoken to) your audience
  4. If you create campaigns based on traditional stereotypes, you may not be thinking about what they are actually interested in (psychographics), their beliefs and values (and this is what successfully builds brands)
  5. The world is changing, younger people are not defined by their gender. This is a cultural movement. Brands need to be aware of this to stay relevant.
  6. It contributes to a bigger picture of sexual violence. See below.

The issue of using gender stereotypes contributes to a huge issue we are still facing in society: violence against women. See the image below by University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre – it highlights sexual violence operates on a spectrum, how damaging hateful beliefs can be, as they are at the root of many violent and problematic behaviours. The more spouts of casual sexism that are called out and fixed, the safer the culture becomes, so major incidents are less likely to happen.

Pink and Purple Illustration of a women in Victorian style clothing holding up her middle finger. The pink sash reads 'I would rather be a rebel than a slave'

And what can you do about it?

Here are some tips to remove stereotyping and assumptions in your design processes and decisions:

  • Don’t make assumptions: ask audiences if your design/brand/communications is/are relevant and representational.
  • Don’t go for the ‘quick’ fix
  • Stay away from cliches – what is the deeper meaning?
  • Listen and have self awareness of the world and communities you work with
  • Educate yourself – we are all learning to be better; understand the barriers and challenges your audience face
  • Speak up and challenge the decision maker if you don’t agree, if it is safe to do so. But do be supportive – cancel culture is not helpful.
  • Make sure that someone at the heart of decision making has both a rational and emotive view

It’s obvious and easy to use cliches in branding. You are making assumptions about a social category based on the past. But what about now, what about tomorrow? Even yesterday. Please catch up. All of this is taking into account that gender stereotypes have been banned in advertising, yet they still get through.

Please note, we know that violence against women is an endemic and that advertising/design is very very minor contribution but this is an area we have knowledge of and wanted to give some contribution and learning. We all have a part to play in calling out the things at the bottom.