Mind your gender stereotypes

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We need to talk about gender stereotypes. The European Institute for Gender Equality defines them as “Preconceived ideas whereby females and males are arbitrarily assigned characteristics and roles determined and limited by their gender.” According to the Institute, the problem with gender stereotyping is that it “can limit the development of the natural talents and abilities of girls and boys, women and men, as well as their educational and professional experiences, and life opportunities in general.” OK, got that.

The reason we need to talk about gender stereotypes is that although we’ve known for several months that the ASA was introducing a new CAP Code rule on gender stereotypes, that rule finally comes into force on 14 June. It’s in section 4, which is concerned with avoiding harm and offence in marketing communications in general, rather than specifically in prize promotions, but nonetheless those of us working in prize promotions would do well to take heed of it.

What the rule says is, “Marketing communications must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” Now this doesn’t mean promotions featuring people in gender-stereotypical roles are being banned per se, but what’s key is that those gender stereotypes mustn’t upset anyone.

I’ve got to say I’m not personally a fan of gender-stereotyping, but I recognise that not everyone sees a gender stereotype where I do and not everyone finds them harmful or offensive. In fact, you may recall that our very own prime minister (at least at the time of writing) endorsed gender stereotypes when she told the One Show that there are “boy jobs and girl jobs”, with taking out the bins falling firmly into the boy jobs category.

So, it’s acceptable to show someone undertaking a gender-stereotypical task – a woman, for example, doing housework or a man putting up shelves. It’s also acceptable to show someone displaying gender-stereotypical characteristics – a sympathetic, caring woman, for instance, or a man being assertive.

However, it’s not acceptable to suggest that stereotypical roles or characteristics are always uniquely associated with one gender, the only options available to one gender, or never carried out or displayed by another gender. In terms of appearances, your promotion can feature glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people, but it shouldn’t suggest that the only route to happiness or emotional wellbeing depends on conforming to those idealised looks.

The ASA has produced some fairly detailed guidance which sets out the rationale behind the new rule and gives a series of scenarios to illustrate the types of approach which it is likely to find unacceptable. The guidance also points out that combining gender stereotypes with other kinds of stereotypes, such as age or race, can compound the potential for harm or offence and clarifies that even if your intention was to be funny, it won’t get you off the hook if your gender stereotypes upset someone.

I’m sure you think very carefully about how your present your brand and the imagery which accompanies your prize promotions anyway, but now you need to think a little harder. That’s good, isn’t it? And now, not because I enjoy the job, but because I do like to confound gender stereotypes, I’m off to put the bins out.

Sarah Burns is Prizeology’s Chief Prizeologist. 

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