Why is marketing still so sexist?

This week, we were lucky enough to have a presentation from Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts of Pretty Little Head about their new book, Brandsplaining.
It’s an investigation into the persistent sexism within marketing: both in terms of what gets made, and how it gets made.
Half of the story is about what the marketing industry makes for female audiences. Their analysis of the assumptions that are inherent in many ad campaigns is initially depressing – and then curiously inspiring. They chart the way in which the feminine mystique which helped imprison women in the 1950s gave way to ‘fempowerment’ from the 1990s onwards. Ostensibly liberating, this way of thinking about women turns out to be just a ‘sneaky’ way of further disenfranchising women by the back door. But they paint a more hopeful picture for the future in the shape of brands that are made for women by women: see the success of brands led by female founders such as Starling Bank.
And this leads on to the second message of the book, which is about who makes the ads rather than who they are made for. Understanding ‘what women want’ is a hard task if you are not a woman: in the movie of the same name, Mel Gibson had to be electrocuted to be able to listen to female desires. But there’s a simple solution: why not hire more women to make the ads? And not just at the bottom of the organisation, but right at the top, where the decisions are made?
This seems like good public policy – and good business sense. While it is possible for male executives to ‘get inside the heads’ of a female audience, it is more of an effort than it is, say, for female executives. The same logic holds true for age groups or ethnic identities. A young, ambitious ad exec has to work very hard to empathise with the lived experience of an older, more established audience – but that comes as standard with his older colleagues. What makes us think that a white researcher has an Olympian view that makes it easy to understand a multi-ethnic audience, but this is denied to a researcher from a more diverse background?
By changing the make-up of the marketing team, we may well change the marketing that gets made. It’s something that the team at Lumen need to take very seriously: many of the accusations levelled at the ad industry could just as well be levelled at us. But this is happening, and Philly and Jane’s book has helped to make it happen faster.