International Women’s Day is more than just another sales opportunity

Before brands jump on International Women’s Day they should look at their own companies, their employment practices and how they engage with women.

gender stereotype

Happy International Women’s Day. It is one of my favourite days of the year.

I was raised by feminists; my mother and father taught my sisters and me about gender politics and to celebrate the women (and men) who have over the centuries worked so hard to bring about gender equality. On 8 March we exchange cards bearing images of strong women, ask ourselves what we are doing to support women and remind each other that while great progress has been made there is still so much more to so.

All very right on, but I think being brought up to believe that having a uterus should be no barrier to success gave me a foundation which has sustained me throughout my life. And no, we didn’t knit our own muesli.

There was a time when I would mention IWD and people would look at me blankly. In fact it wasn’t that long ago. In 2014, before we launched This Girl Can at Sport England, I referenced International Women’s Day in a conversation with some of the team and it fell flat with most of them. But things have changed pretty quickly since then.

Last year everyone was celebrating – broadcasters, print media, online platforms, retailers and brands. Part of me was delighted – finally something from the Joseph household had become mainstream. But honestly, a bit of me was deeply suspicious. Had all these organisations experienced a Damascene conversion to feminism?

International Women’s Day isn’t yours to celebrate unless you are truly committed to doing something to improve the lot of women.

The sceptic in me thinks that – like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and even Halloween – IWD has been picked up just as another opportunity to sell. And if that is what you are doing, I say: no, desist, please step away from my day. Look to supercharge Mother’s Day. Make something out of the spring equinox. Don’t sully 8 March.

Don’t follow my advice just to avoid my wrath (although it is worth avoiding); do it because it is the right thing to do.

I am not saying you can’t celebrate International Women’s Day. Not at all. I want people and organisations to do so, but I don’t think it is yours to celebrate unless you are truly committed to doing something to improve the lot of women.

The first and easiest step is to look to yourself. Do a gender equality audit.

What are you doing as an employer of women? What is the gender pay gap in your organisation? Do you have flexible working options that really are workable? Are women being recruited, promoted and retained in your business? Is your workplace one in which women are not subject to unwanted attention? Do women get a voice in your organisation?

I don’t think there are many, if any, businesses that will get a clean bill of health on all of these. But all organisations can make a commitment to improve on all fronts.

Creating a workplace which works for women has the added bonus of working for men too. Diverse workplaces are more creative, happier and more productive. Men want flexible working as well. Workplace cultures that place an emphasis on respect are good for business. It just makes good sense.

Talking of which, the next step is to think about how you engage with your female consumers. Are you giving them the respect they deserve? Are you recognising the huge influence women have on all household spending, not just make-up and cleaning products?

Or are you bringing new products to market aimed at women that are plain stupid (yes I am talking about you Doritos)? Are you using images of women that are so idealised, stylised and/or airbrushed that rather than being aspirational they engender low esteem and self-loathing?

READ MORE: International Women’s Day – 5 campaigns that show how brands are ‘pressing for progress’

It is possible to be better. We are in marketing, we are selling hopes and dreams but we can do it without perpetuating harm. Lots of brands are creating fantastic campaigns with these principles in mind.

If you need help on the journey, you can get it from the likes of the Fawcett Society on what you might do to support women in the workplace, while the Adverting Standards Authority’s new rules and guidelines on harmful gender stereotypes are a good place to start when it comes to creative output.

International Women’s Day should not be just another holiday, or a day to sell t-shirts with pictures of Rosie the Riveter on them, wonderful image though it is. It should be a day when brands say publicly that they are going to do something to support women, whether it is their female staff or their female consumers. And do it with authenticity and credibility.

As those amazing women who a century ago fought and in some cases died to win female suffrage put it, it is time for “deeds not words”.

Tanya Joseph is a consultant, chair of The Pool, and was architect of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign at Sport England