Female political and corporate representation are really going to be fundamental to driving and shaping change.
In our upcoming report 10 Years of 10 Trends—which takes a fresh look at 10 trends we’ve featured over the past decade—we spotlight changing gender dynamics and the rising power of women. We discussed this trend with Rachel Pashley, JWT London’s global board planning director and author of the study “The New Female Tribes,” an attempt to chart modern womanhood, describe global female diversity and find a more meaningful and positive language with which to describe women. Pashley is in the process of turning the study into a book. She described some key findings from her research into women around the world, her thoughts on which marketers are doing well in targeting women and what more brands should be doing, and the problem with “fempowerment” messaging.
Could you tell me about your “New Female Tribes” report and some of your key findings?
The “Female Tribes” is my attempt to chart the ways in which women are changing and “evolving” around the world, to create essentially a new narrative on women. It was sparked by, firstly, a frustration with the narrow terminology used to define and describe women—the fact that we’re usually defined by our responsibilities, principally whether or not we have children—but also the sense that female achievement isn’t something we’re used to acknowledging or celebrating. As a woman working in the communications industry, I felt there was an opportunity to do something about it and maybe inspire other women—and men—in the industry.
In terms of some key findings, or my observations:
Women in Asia: There’s a remarkable cultural shift going on at the moment, and it’s having profound social impact. We’ve probably all heard about the “New Asian Woman” phenomenon in some shape or form—the idea that these Asian “alpha women” are climbing the corporate ladder—but what I wanted to describe was what it meant for them, what motivated them and what life was like for them. For example, in China, the unabated pressure to marry: On the one hand, you have more female billionaires than anywhere else in the world, yet on the other hand, the intense pressure to find a husband means that China ranks No. 3 in the world for cosmetic surgery! But it’s not just women in the boardroom in China. Young, educated women in rural communities are seeking factory jobs in the cities to support their families and communities, and there’s a great sense of personal pride in being the main breadwinner.
The African political class: Female political representation in Africa has increased dramatically. For example, in South Africa, some 45 percent of the members of parliament are female. This contrasts sharply with the lack of female representation in, say, the U.K. or U.S. It’s easy to dismiss this as the result of quotas, but that’s quite dismissive of the degree to which women in Africa have engaged politically and organized as a means to drive and shape change. And there are parallels with Latin America, where there’s a rich history of women pioneering social change. You’ll see there’s a consistent theme of female self-determination, socially, economically and politically, and that’s something I’m very keen to draw attention to.
What brands are doing a good job of depicting and speaking to a variety of women?
It’s funny, because it feels like the beauty or cosmetics brands have been amongst the first to wake up to the idea of diversity amongst women—Dove’s an obvious example. But beyond that, I see Oriental Princess and Unilever’s Pantene celebrating female empowerment in Asia, which is great, and L’Oreal using, say, Jane Fonda feels like a small victory to those women in their 50s and beyond still wanting—and expecting—to feel beautiful. But on the other hand, given the degree to which women are now the main breadwinners across America or increasingly the car-buying decision-maker, you’d think the automotive industry and financial services sector would be doing more to court women.
What do you see as the broad trend in the balance of power between the sexes over the past decade?
I hesitate to use the phrase “balance of power” because it implies the universal seesaw metaphor that somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. And I don’t see it quite that way—I see it as a “sharing” of power. What we’re witnessing is the effect of generations of women who are pursuing a self-determined path, and that may be that they want to be a mother or a banker or a politician, etc., but there’s less of a sense that they need to seek social acceptance or approval to follow their heart and find what’s right for themselves. We’re also seeing much more fluidity in terms of roles and careers—more men are seeking to share parenting responsibilities—and we no longer have careers for life. We may start second careers or reinvent ourselves later in life, and I suspect that will benefit women too.
How do you see the position of women shifting further over the next decade or so?
Female political and corporate representation are really going to be fundamental to driving and shaping change. Women as consumers are also a potent force for change because, thanks to social media, we can give brands very immediate feedback. And ultimately, let’s face it, brands have a vested interest in recognizing women—there’s a financial imperative, which, cynically speaking, tends to change things fast! We only have to look to Hollywood, to the relatively rapid volte-face in female representation once they realized the box office potential of female-led films: Money talks. Ultimately, it will be the economic opportunity presented by women that will be the final arbiter in terms of achieving equality.
What are some of the primary repercussions for brands and businesses as women gain more clout as consumers?
I think some brands assume that targeting women means “feminizing” either their brand or their communications, so we see pink power drills or car brands creating products in lipstick colors. It kind of misses the point. If you want to make power drills for women, think about the weight and size of the product. If you’re customizing a car, think about the distance between the pedals and the seat and the steering wheel—since we tend to be shorter with smaller feet. If you’re a financial services provider, think about a mortgage product with a maternity leave payment holiday. The bigger point I’m making here is that brands have to tune in—beyond the superficial—to understand women’s needs, and when it is and isn’t appropriate to tailor your offering. Don’t assume—just because I’m a woman—I want a laptop with a built-in calorie counter.
How is the Millennial generation different when it comes to gender power and relations? And how might Gen Z be different still?
What strikes me about Millennials is the degree to which they appear much more confident and assumptive of equality. That feels very positive. However, I think they’re subject to a different set of pressures, and I also worry about how sexualized the world in which they live in feels—and from a very young age. That brings a very different dynamic and set of false ideals for young girls to live up to, which is troubling. I think bullying through social media could be a repressive force as well.
On the one hand, they have more freedom and possibilities, but on the other hand, perhaps some of that is taken away through peer pressure. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
Do you see us ultimately evolving toward a more gender-neutral society, or gradually evolving beyond gender?
May I offer a third term? I’d like to see us move toward a more “gender equal” society. “Gender neutral” implies to me that we won’t pay any attention to the differences between men and women, and that seems quite sad. We’re equal but different. For example, women have a different management style—we tend to take a longer-term view in decision-making, and we see the impact of that in female-run hedge funds. We have to embrace those differences—they can be a force for good!
What if anything has surprised you over the past few years when it comes to women and gender equality?
I’m surprised that we still see child care as a woman’s responsibility. And this assumption exerts enormous influence over how we view women in terms of career progression, employment, salary, etc. It can still hold women back. I never hear of successful men having to respond to the question, “So how do you combine that stellar career with parenthood?” This dynamic also holds back fathers who may want to take more time out to devote to parenting.
Women have made major gains in some ways but very minor gains in others. What’s holding back progress?
It’s linked to my previous point—we define women in terms of their responsibilities as opposed to their achievements (the “busy working mom”). We need to change the narrative and to celebrate female achievement more, and to encourage it.
What part can brands or marketers play in this realm?
In the way that advertising and communication can become part of popular culture, it can prove to be highly influential. Marketers and brands should reflect and tune in to what’s going on around them, because that helps to make it real and normalize it. The Benetton campaigns of the 1980s had something interesting and provocative to say. In a more subtle way, when I see a baby food ad featuring a stay-at-home dad, I think it’s great and I want to see more of it.
What do you make of the “fempowerment” messaging we’ve seen over the past year?
I think “branding” feminism or the recognition of women has the potential to make it a “trend,” and by implication a trend has a shelf life. It can also prove reductive in the sense that we end up with a narrow definition of what feminism looks like, and it’s through the lens of “You go, girl” marketing. To me, that’s a creative brief for some fairly condescending communication, and I don’t need my brands necessarily to be a hyper-caffeinated feminist life coach—I want them to recognize me for who I am and my needs and ultimately my spending power.
For a while, “feminist” was seen as having a negative connotation. What do you make of everyday people and celebrities embracing it now?
What’s taken them so long? Seriously though, feminism has to be more than a photo opportunity. And when it comes to politicians wearing the Fawcett Society’s “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, I want to see the film of the T-shirt, and not the other way round. The most important thing is that we embrace it as a positive term and we acknowledge that there is no one blueprint or definition of feminism. Because once we start telling women what to do, that’s not feminism.
Looking forward, what does the advancement of women mean for societies?
Ultimately, women being given a voice and greater political and economic influence is very positive for society. There’s enough data to suggest that countries with troubled economies recover faster when women have access to the political corridors of power; hedge funds are more profitable; brands are more powerful; I could go on and on. It’s troubling in some sense that we have to provide such hard data to support the obvious: Women should have equal representation and status in society.