We Are All Equal – From #AWEurope

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It’s been 100 years since women won the right to vote, but as Kate Waters (CSO and co-founder, Now) aptly pointed out, “I think it’s fair to say that if Emily Pankhurst and her friends were here today, she wouldn’t exactly be cracking open the champagne.” Welcoming Tess Alps (Executive Chair, Thinkbox), Zaid Al-Qassab (Chief Brand and Marketing Officer, BT), Nicola Kemp (Trends Editor, Campaign), Sophie Walker (Leader, Women’s Equality Party) and Liz Unna (Director, Independent Films) to the stage, Waters led an honest and much-needed discussion about gender equality both within the advertising world and modern society as a whole this past week at Advertising Week Europe’s We Are All Equal panel.

Women have certainly come a long way in this past century, but as Waters and her co-panelists pointed out, there is still so much work to be done—women represent 51% of the population but only 32% of MPs; there is still a gender pay gap of 18.5% which is not projected to close for over another century; nearly two-thirds of young women have been sexually harassed in the workplace; and arguably, the most powerful man in the western world has been the subject of numerous accusations of sexual assault. While these statistics certainly aren’t cause for celebration, Waters does believe that there is cause for optimism given the historical events of the past 12 months from the women’s marches to the #metoo movement—there is a reason for hope.

Speaking on how these wider cultural movements fit in to the advertising industry, Nicola Kemp highlighted the importance of recognizing the creative workplace as holding a special significance when it comes to these issues as its foundation lay upon its ability to properly and effectively represent the world and pave the way for change. While the panelists agreed that many of the same issues that plague gender inequality that exist in advertising are the same for most every industry, creatives in advertising have a “particular responsibility to get it right,” it, being how they frame women’s experiences stereotypically.

However, the discussion opened up to the fact that these changes must come from a wider cultural and structural overhaul. As Sophie Walker explained, “I think the same fundamental problem is stitched through all industries, which is that women are not given the same rights and opportunities because we exist in a society that treats women as second-class citizens and that permeates everything.” Walker went on to highlight the issue of treating women’s equality as a sort of tick-box exercise in which no real learning or fundamental change is able to occur. Real change must be cemented in the way we educate young people, through a “system that doesn’t channel boys and girls out into occupational segregation.” For Walker and Alps, it is important to afford boys and girls the same opportunities to grow from the start so that we no longer exist in a world in which there is no assumed need for special training programs for women on how to make it in a “man’s world” but rather a gender-neutral way of existing not tied to one’s sexual organs. An important point made throughout the panel was the necessity of treating this world as non-gender specific from the start so that parental, familial, and work responsibilities are learned as gender neutral. This means the discontinuation of seminars on how to be a “woman in tech” and more seminars for people, calling them out for even making this type of learned behavior, a seemingly necessary evil.

Alps expanded on the necessity of starting by changing the culture rather than the industry because for her and the other panelists, the issues in industry are a product of those in society. For Alps, it is a culture that entraps men just as much as women and it is through educating the current and future generations on equality that we can truly begin to have a crack at changing the status quo.

Bringing things back around to advertising, Zaid Al-Qassab brought an important perspective to the panel regarding how we can make diversity more holistic and less of a tick—box exercise by ensuring that the communications put out during the course of a year are reflective of the society they claim to represent. While Al-Qassab sees his role as an advertiser as both shaping and representing culture, making the point, that, as an advertiser, one must be at the “front of the majority, not the vanguard.” However, Nicola Kemp sees this as a problem; by being at the front of the majority, “advertising has been absolutely brilliant at perpetuating stereotypes.” For Kemp and the other panelists, sometimes being at the front of the vanguard is necessary to break through what is effectively an unfairly segregated society to allow for a more equal and just world. We can’t simply reflect society, we must progress it.

Ending the discussion, Walker rounded out how the issues of equality, again, must be looked at as a wider cultural problem to be resolved in the whole of society as opposed to finding a solution within the industry-specific lens of advertising: “there is a massive, massive structural problem that we have to fix by doing politics very differently; we have to take this [system] apart and rebuild it.” These solutions are founded by investing in education and care and seeing this movement as not just a women’s movement, but as a person’s movement.

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