How ShEqual is looking to bring equality into advertising

We look at ShEqual’s mission to address the ad industry’s sexism and gender discrimination and in turn, improve representations in advertising itself

Backed by industry and government leaders, an Australian first initiative to champion equality in advertising has launched. ShEqual aims to positively transform Australia’s advertising landscape and is an initiative of Women’s Health Victoria, a state-wide not-for-profit, women’s health promotion, advocacy and support service.

Its strategic partners in the advertising industry, government and beyond include Clemenger Group, Respect Victoria, The Shannon Company, OMD Australia, Our Watch, Venus Comms, Marmalade, RMIT University and City of Melbourne. As part of its work, shEqual is encouraging advertising agencies and brands to take the shEqual pledge and commit to changing the advertising they produce, and how they do business.

“I look forward to seeing advertising agencies and brands taking the shEqual pledge. Advertising equality is a benefit to our community and a win for business,” said Women’s Health Victoria CEO, Dianne Hill.

The shEqual mission

ShEqual is the first coordinated effort in Australia to promote gender equality and address the drivers of violence against women in the advertising setting. The initiative believes that while advertising plays a significant role in perpetuating attitudes and behaviours that harm women’s health and equality and drive violence against women, it can also play a transformative role in promoting women’s health and equality through the use of diverse, realistic and respectful gender portrayals.

“It’s our mission to raise industry and public awareness about gender (in)equality in advertising, reinforce positive behaviours and empower people to take action in shaping how women are represented in the stories we tell and consume,” the group said.

shEqual is guided by a national strategic framework, Seeing is Believing, and takes a ‘whole-of-system’ approach to driving change, working across three priority areas: Industry culture change, empowering community, and regulation and policy. ShEqual will collaborate with the advertising industry on research and resource development, events and communications, and delivers tailored training on gender equality for the advertising industry.

It’s the culmination of years of research, advocacy and engagement with the advertising industry and forms an important part of WHV’s vision of ‘Women living well – healthy, empowered and equal’. The work of WHV is underpinned by a social model of health and a commitment to reducing inequities in health which arise from social, economic and environmental determinants.

Good advertising starts with the industry itself

Improving the industry is linked to improving advertising itself and industry research has found advertising that promotes gender equality is positively received, particularly by women. Sales lift and purchase intent and brand loyalty improve for brands that show women as more equal, more multidimensional and more authentic.

Research has also shown advertising that challenges gender stereotypes and uses ‘progressive’ portrayals has more ‘brand distinctiveness’ making it more memorable and able to stand out for consumers.

To understand the state of thing, shEqual conducted a national online survey in late 2021 that explored attitudes to gender equality in the ad industry. Its preliminary findings show that gender equality in advertising matters deeply to those who work in the industry. It found respondents of all genders believe not enough action on gender equality is being taken by employers, industry bodies and governments.

However, there are some clear gender differences. Women are more likely than men to believe industry and workplace culture influence advertising content, less likely to believe gender equality is prioritised in Australian advertising, more likely to be concerned about speaking up due to fear of negative consequences, and more likely to support strong initiatives like gender pay transparency and quotas for women at senior levels.

For example, while 54 per cent of male respondents believed the advertising industry prioritises gender equality in advertising content or as a workplace, only 29 per cent of female respondents agreed. Only about one-third of female respondents (32 per cent) believed the Australian advertising industry prioritises addressing gender equality in advertising content, compared with nearly half of male respondents (47 per cent).

What’s more, about two-thirds of female respondents agreed agency management and industry bodies are doing less than they should to promote gender equality in advertising content (62 per cent agency management; 66 per cent industry bodies), compared with less than half of men (39 per cent agency management; 44 per cent industry bodies).

In addition, nearly half of female respondents reported that they would have concerns about speaking up about a gender equality issue in the workplace due to fear of negative consequences (46 per cent), compared with around one-sixth of men (17 per cent).

ShEqual also found that while some progress has been made, there is a strong perception that gender inequality remains pervasive in the Australian advertising industry. Off the back of this, ShEqual stated tangible actions and initiatives to promote gender equality in advertising, such as gender pay audits and workplace practices supportive of parental leave and flexible work arrangements for people of all genders, would clearly have the support of those working in the industry.

ShEqual wants its survey findings to act as a guide for future action on gender equality in the advertising industry. It will be undertaking further analysis to find gaps in understanding of gender equality in advertising that warrant more research.

“I hope shEqual will start a national conversation about how advertising can be a powerful force for driving gender equality and ending violence against women,” Hill said.

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