In honor of International Women’s Day last year, Burger King’s UK account tweeted: “Women belong in the kitchen.”
It followed up with a tweet clarifying: “If they want to, of course,” and provided statistics about the lack of women chefs. Later, the company announced it was awarding culinary scholarships to its female employees.
But the damage was done — the initial tweet went viral with criticism before ultimately being deleted.
This year, International Women’s Day on March 8 saw other companies trying to save face after attempting to appeal to women. As companies in the United Kingdom posted messages celebrating their female employees, a bot account, developed by a young British couple, retweeted the posts with the company or organization’s gender pay gap. (In Britain, companies with more than 250 employees are required to submit their gender pay gaps based on payroll data.) Some of the organizations removed their original posts.
In recent years, Women’s History Month has spurred splashy corporate ads, campaigns, speaker events and other paeans to women and gender equity in the workplace. And yet, the ads that misfire or even insult potential employees or customers are increasingly at risk of serving as an entry point to expose a company’s hypocrisy.
Companies tweeted for International Women’s Day. Then this account called out their pay gaps.
“Brands are trying too hard,” said Jenna Drenten, acting chair of the marketing department at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago. “‘This is an ad for women, by women, celebrating women.’ Letting women know that undercuts the ability of women in particular to discern what ads are for them.”
Such pandering also reminds women that they are not the target demographic for advertising, Drenten said, and underscores that companies have traditionally viewed men as their target market. This can be insulting to women when they are charged a premium for products such as pens, tampons and deodorant.
But in recent years, that messaging has been shifting.
There’s a more insidious aspect to the marketing of the past decade, sociologists Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad argue in their new book, “Confidence Culture.”
For Gill and Orgad, the myth of confidence is now being sold to women — through messages that seem to celebrate diversity and play to notions of celebrating oneself. Instead of preying on what was ostensibly wrong with women and what they could buy to transform themselves, a new era of marketing is appealing to women’s inner resilience, said Gill, who is a professor of social and cultural analysis at City, University of London.
“Today, these kinds of confidence messages are ubiquitous in advertising targeted at women and show no signs of abating,” Gill said. “Confidence messaging has become the way to sell to women.”
But the changes in marketing merely serve as window dressing for larger societal issues being pinned on women and framed as individual responsibilities and choices, Gill and Orgad argue.
“They trivialize the forces ranged against women, whether that is the impact of ever-intensifying appearance pressures or other institutional, systemic inequalities,” Gill said. “They not only elevate confidence to an almost mythical status, but they also pathologize women for not having enough of it, implying that this is women’s responsibility alone, a personal defect.”
That this change in advertising emerged after the 2008 financial crisis is hardly a coincidence, added Orgad, a professor of media and communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In the years since, many structural systems that supported women have eroded, while financial pressures and more demanding work schedules have escalated.
U.S. workers are dealing with an increasing wealth gap, making it harder to get by while wages remain stagnant. Employer-based health care and benefits and job security are hardly guaranteed, and the concurrent rise of the gig economy places many women in precarious financial positions — as the pandemic proved. In the last two years, women have faced the lion’s share of job losses — particularly in retail and service jobs — coining the term “shecession.”
Meanwhile, advertising has, in recent years, highlighted women’s capacity, resilience, confidence and defiance.
“It is precisely in the wake of the dismantling of social support nets and in the absence of state and workplace support that messages to women to love themselves, work on themselves and ‘fix’ themselves have proliferated,” Orgad said. “Women are encouraged to care for themselves because no one else will.”
Meanwhile, other cultural changes affected the way women see themselves, absent structural frameworks, Orgad said: Popular and neoliberal feminism “puts it on women to turn inward and focus on themselves and to turn away from thinking that structural barriers are out there.”
She points to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement as pivotal to this emerging version of feminism that places the onus on individual psychological change over societal transformation — without accounting for privilege awarded to certain women, or the structures that influence that change. As one 2018 Washington Post article put it: “The potency of Sandberg’s individualistic, motivational mantra has fully eroded.”
For Gill and Orgad, companies would be able to better connect with women if they put focus on structures and shifted away from the individual — particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which has laid bare the disproportionate burdens put on women.
“Our critique of confidence culture is a call for governments, workplaces, corporations, the media and the education system to change their messaging and invest in supporting women and other disadvantaged groups in order to combat inequality,” Orgad said.
Next year, for Women’s History Month, if companies want to effectively celebrate or win over women, Loyola’s Drenten said, companies and organizations would be better off speaking to a different audience: men.
“It backfires when companies end up speaking to women, but telling women things they already know,” she said, noting that what women really want, according to research, is pay equality, equal opportunities in the workplace and benefits like paid leave.
“On International Women’s Day, it would actually be really subversive to talk to men and say, ‘Hey, here’s what you need to know,’” Drenten said. “It could actually move the needle of the conversation for gender equity and equality.”