Skip to main content
emba diary

The problem of objectifying women isn’t limited to Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein.Charles Sykes/The Associated Press

Vasie Papadopoulos of Hamilton and John Rocco of Toronto are executive MBA students at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont. Ms. Papadopoulos is the founder of OurWrite, a volunteer organization focused on supporting women's rights and building female supportive schools and community centres in developing countries. Mr. Rocco is the vice-president of marketing at Sonnet Insurance.

When you objectify a woman, you automatically make her unequal. This couldn't be truer than in the scandal surrounding movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the numerous women he objectified in the name of power and dominance.

This problem isn't limited to Hollywood. We all know that. It is a problem we face in society as a whole.

The marketing industry, however, finds itself in a unique position. It produces groundbreaking and progressive ideas, yet is guilty of perpetuating the problem. The industry, clear of the blatant stereotypical housewife ad, still creates an environment through messaging and imagery that sexualizes and diminishes women.

There is also a worldwide shift happening toward gender and how genders are depicted. A survey in 2016 of more than 12,000 men and women in 32 countries found that the percentage of those surveyed – 61 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men – believe children should be raised without strict gender restrictions.

In our executive MBA program, we are taught that as business leaders we must lead and influence where change can be the greatest and not absolve ourselves of that responsibility. Therefore, as business leaders what decisions are we making? What do we need to address to evolve our communications on behalf of our brands for women?

Gender bias or stereotyping of women in advertising won't cease unless we stop classifying women into stereotypical tropes. Whether it be the unattainable goddess or the selfless nurturer or the fraught superwoman, we must break the mould of casting women in these roles and remove the unrealistic expectations placed on women by advertisers. In the case of the hyper-sexualized woman, we seemed to have regressed in terms of progress.

Researchers reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone magazine covers over a period of 40 years and found that the sexualization of women actually increased from the 1960s, when 44 per cent of women were depicted that way, to the 2000s where that figure doubled to 83 per cent.

When marketing something, do we need it to be gender specific? In some product cases, yes, but holistically it doesn't. We need to be purposeful and thoughtful when making these decisions and when it is required, as it often is, let's resist the lowest common denominator. Give the consumer more credit so that you don't need the vapid beauty queen, a pink shirt or the hot chick to sell a product.

We must address the idea that we need to choose between marketing positions that you are either a supermodel or a real woman like in the Dove ads. We shouldn't pit women against women when it comes to marketing, but rather recognize that different customers have different wants and needs. We can go deeper than the veneer and create messaging that makes people reflect and have connections with brands that are built on human truths, not outdated myths.

As business leaders, we can directly make industries accountable and push for that change. The fashion industry in France took a stance on underweight models, and Allure magazine announced it won't use the term anti-aging any more. The marketing industry can reward those who take a different path, such as the advertising agency Badger & Winters, which won't use women as props in their campaigns. The more difficult it is to make and showcase this type of imagery, others will follow.

We can staff our teams with women who understand the business objectives we face but can bring a different perspective on how we address these issues and demand messaging with a different tone that reflects how women should truly be depicted.

We need courageous male leaders who empower a new way of thinking that can finally help this type of sexism and be champions of change alongside women. And as consumers we should spend our money accordingly.

As business leaders, when in a position to decide how women are represented, we must push for those changes with a larger perspective than just the mandate of our departments, brands or companies but for society as a whole.

Let's not be silent any more. Addressing the objectification of women is one less barrier to the path of equality.

As business leaders, we pledge to do that.