By Mary Ellen Holden

In collaboration with UNICEF and its partners, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media unveiled a new Gender Bias and Inclusion in Advertising in India report at a Virtual See Jane Salon on April 21, 2021. This research assessed the role of advertising media in reinforcing and challenging harmful gender stereotypes that shape girls’ and women’s lives to prompt more gender-sensitive campaigns. The findings show some progress, yet there is substantial work ahead to open minds and change outcomes.

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director, UNICEF, observed that we need an all-hands-on deck approach, including companies through their advertising media marketing and products, to accomplish this. That is why UNICEF is working with several private sector partners to highlight how products and messaging can be designed with sound gender considerations, in order to represent and celebrate diversity in all its forms.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Shreyasi Jha, Senior Advisor, Gender Equality, UNICEF, and Maha Muna, UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia, Regional Gender Advisor (ROSA/Regional Gender Advisor) to dig deeper into the real-world implications of these findings.

Maha Muna

Mary Ellen Holden: What are the critical Diversity & Inclusion initiatives for UNICEF in South Asia?

Maha Muna: Some of the most cutting-edge work is around ending child marriage by focusing on girls’ education, linkages to health programs, and ending portrayals of child marriage in entertainment media. We always look at advertising because it’s an essential vehicle for social norm change and breaking stereotypes. Working with advertisers is both about sending a positive message of the possibilities and shifting structural barriers with the help of the private sector. In advertising, the creative campaigns can show women making decisions for the household or purchasing a car. There is the opportunity in advertising to influence cultural norms in society. By the way we are also completing a study on women-friendly and family-friendly policies in the workplace, which is a priority for some media corporations as well.

Mary Ellen: How has advertising changed since you were a child in India?

Shreyasi Jha

Shreyasi Jha: When I grew up in this region, advertising was quite conservative as it showcased the expected roles women and girls played in society. Today, advertisers have taken a step forward. I have seen campaigns that feature widows (which was considered taboo), transgender people participating in traditional social rituals, and female wrestlers. A progressive Gillette campaign based in India shows two girls managing the Barber Shop their father used to run. But, with every positive campaign that I’ve seen, I still feel we could do better as they are often coming from the male gaze. For every positive campaign, there are about 100 which are not right. There is a lot of glorification of the supermom.

Mary Ellen: Why partner with the Institute on this particular study?

Shreyasi: Back in 2019, I attended a launch event with the Institute and Plan International and realized that you have excellent technical expertise and global outreach capacity. There was a strong linkage with UNICEF’s priorities and GDI’s mission, which prompted me to start the partnership conversation.

Maha: What I like is the back and forth, especially as we learn to work alongside the private sector, key partners in the realization of women and child rights and the SDG2030 agenda. The research analysis was so intense, yet thoughtful. I didn’t know the word trope before! Working with the Institute brought an added dimension when we looked at colorism/racism – it’s critical to the analysis.

Mary Ellen: What findings were most surprising?

Shreyasi: I was surprised that females have more screen time in advertisements than males. However, the activities that they engaged in are as expected, and their roles are very stereotyped. When you see something often, you become blind to it. Like colorism – we know it exists, but we aren’t always conscious of it. It was super fascinating to look at our programs and discuss how we address these issues moving forward.

Maha: I thought there would be a lot of difference around nutrition. So, I was really surprised when the study showed almost equal numbers of male and female characters engaging in restrictive eating (0.2 vs. 0.5 respectively). Promoting positive eating habits and nutrition is important. I thought we’d see more depictions of boys eating junk food and depictions of girls as being skinny or eating less. Healthy eating and being active are essential for the mind and body.

I also thought that higher depictions of humor for men was interesting, and I would never have looked at it. Men are twice as likely to be depicted as intelligent and funny. As we consider supporting sound mental health, particularly in the current COVID-19 crisis impacting the region, there is so much actionable data in the report.

Mary Ellen: What finding(s) (evidence) support your personal experience?

Shreyasi: There is so much gender-based discrimination in India and South Asia that I think it’s important to point out that not all women face discrimination in the same way. The study resonated for me personally having grown up in India. The intersection of where you are and who you are in terms of social class and caste makes your experience of gender-based discrimination completely different. For instance, I know that I would be treated differently if you put me on the road and dressed me one way than if I were dressed differently. It doesn’t justify the form of harassment of discrimination I’d face, just that the form would be different. I’m glad we were able to delve into some of these nuances of class, caste, body shape, etc. in the report. I loved how we pulled at these different threads to see how gender intertwines with other factors, and I think that girls in South Asia will relate.

Maha: For me, what was interesting was the highly stereotyped roles women played in the ads. For example, female characters are less likely to be shown in public spaces and in paid employment; in the region, there are perceptions of public spaces (buses) as unsafe for females, and in some communities purda continues to be practiced. While girls are graduated from high school, and even university, at higher rates today than ever before they are not transitioning into employment and entrepreneurship at the same level as boys. If marketers can normalize positive representation of women and girls, society can break away from restrictive stereotypes, and offer more empowered and an enabling environment for adolescent girls.

Mary Ellen: How can intersectional and gender equity in advertising improve society and open possibilities for children?

Shreyasi: Kids are flooded with images. When we show children and adolescents what is possible in their lives, there is no limit to what they can do or who they can be regardless of their gender, the color of their skin, or their ethnicity. We can influence the narrative and guide corporate messaging. I think they want to do better.

On Mother’s Day, I was walking with my almost 12-year-old daughter and we walked by Athleta (a well-known sports brand), and they have totally re-done all of their mannequins to represent different body types. This body-positivity campaign was fantastic. We talked, and she said, “my school is like that with all sorts of people with different bodies.” To me this symbolized what the importance of children seeing themselves in the images and products that they see in the world around them.

Mary Ellen: Based on the study, what types of new solutions and strategies for advertisers are you thinking of to end harmful stereotypes in India? Across the globe?

Shreyasi: I think a lot of advertisers fall back on showing girls in sports. Sports is great, and we should continue with sports but we should also look at what other skills that we want boys and girls to have equally such as tech skills for girls and perhaps, more care related play for boys. Boys like to play with dolls until they receive social pressure not to play with dolls – it’s not normalized equally. I think if we normalized more boys and men engaging in care related roles and women and girls in more economically empowered roles, that would good a long way towards addressing stereotypes.

Maha: I think if advertising picked up more of the reality of women’s lives, it could be compelling. It would be great to show girls and women on the phone buying credit as they walk to school or to work, or show home-based workers using their phone to buy and sell products that they produce in the informal sector and in cottage industries throughout the region. Did you know that one network has over 900,000 South Asian home-based workers who handle their finances via e-commerce? Women are activists and change agents in society. We have a Sheroes campaign celebrating the female community healthcare workers who walk for miles to deliver a baby or vital medicine. It’s a celebration of womanhood. These are the images of women that can be highlighted in advertisements, as an accurate representation of the strong women of South Asia.

Mary Ellen: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?

Shreyasi: I’m excited to be working with the Geena Davis Institute on this study. The reach and technical expertise you bring to the table, coupled with our joint ability to influence not just advertisers but companies as they are real movers and shakers. I am part of a private-sector partnerships group at UNICEF that engages businesses to address gender stereotyping where we are working with the Lego Group. If a company like Lego decides that they’re not going to sell stereotyped toys, they can have more impact than most governments. It’s huge. We need more such trendsetters in the advertising and media industry.

Maha: These issues are all interconnected as we’re all part of this human family. I recall during the See Jane Salon, one of my colleagues observed that we couldn’t have had this conversation even five years ago. Today, there is greater accountability within advertising. Before I attended the See Jane Salon, I didn’t realize how much the advertising industry is doing. Participants were keen to ensure positive representations of women, and to shift workplace practices to support diversity and inclusion. I am hopeful that we are on the road to real gender-sensitive advertising.

Main photo: © UNICEF/UN0276725/Das