Does feminism have a branding issue?

September 26, 2017

How to reconcile the fact that the majority of Quebecers support equality between men and women, but still refuse the label of “feminist”? This is one of the questions raised in the wake of The Future is FeMale, the latest Prosumer Report, based on a worldwide survey conducted by the Havas network.

According to the survey, 9 out of 10 Quebecers, men and women combined, believe in equal pay for equal work. But this is not the reality. Respondents attributed this inequality to sexism, gender bias and the fact that men still make the rules. Quebecers were also clear about the fact that although women have rights, and that the world would be a better place if more women were in power, women actually have little authority. The “boy’s club”, it seems, is still going strong.

Furthermore, only 40% of Quebec women consider themselves to be feminists. This is low in comparison to the rest of Canada, where 1 in 2 women feel comfortable enough to call themselves feminists.

Lise Thériault, the Quebec Minister responsible for the Status of Women, refused the label in 2016, explaining that “my vision is more pragmatic than theoretical, more grounded than militant, more individual than collective”. Even the Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard, thinks that, “the feminist label debate is not a useful one”.

As an advertising man, I do not agree. The words we use to name something greatly influence our perceptions and actions. Too many still associate “feminism” with a militantism that has left scars on our society: 1 in 5 Quebecers think that feminism has done more harm than good.

For many, “feminism” has become the antithesis of masculinity and not synonymous with equality. The word has lost its primary meaning; that is, the desire for equality between the sexes. But all the people who refuse to be called feminists don’t want to be mistaken for misogynists either. Similarly, although racist stereotypes continue to be perpetuated, no one wants to be called a racist. Few are trying to reclaim homophilia—most prefer LGBT-friendly—but we certainly don’t want to be accused of homophobia.

As a brand, feminism enjoys high notoriety, but there’s a challenge when it comes to engaging the majority. We can, of course, agree with something without defending it. That’s the difference between an attitude and a value. But how can we change perceptions if most people refuse to be associated with the movement?

Words are the reflection of our thoughts. In changing our vocabulary, we can change behaviour. The feminist movement, for example, has started labelling behaviours (even if unconscious) that restrain a woman’s place in society and in the workplace. These words are now commonly used: manterruption, mansplaining and bropropriation. These neologisms are useful in helping women become more aware of how often they are interrupted by men, have men explain things to them (usually with condescension) or have a man steal their ideas.

If there’s someone who understands the weight of words, it’s Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, who, in 2016, launched a movement to banish the adjective bossy. According to Sandberg, if we want to increase the number of women in executive positions, we need to break the common stereotype that when a man is authoritative, he’s a “leader”, but if a woman exhibits the same behaviour, that she’s “bossy”.

Although we could use more people claiming their feminism, there is no shortage of interest in the movement. There are more books about feminism than you could read in a year. Beyoncé performed in front of the word at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. The luxury brand Dior is selling a t-shirt proclaiming “We should all be feminist” (retail price $700). The ecommerce website Etsy features more than 20,000 feminist-themed items.

If feminism wants to grow, it will have to convince more people to join the movement, which it can do by levering current interest and clarifying its image… before marketing campaigns get there first.

The movement’s communications must also stress its inclusiveness. The desire to fight on behalf of all women (and not to the detriment of men) may help to bring that hesitant 60% of women and 75% of men back into the fold.

Thankfully, for each resistant Lise Thériault, there’s a more open Justin Trudeau. Because it’s 2017.

Article originally published in French on L’actualité

Image from YouTube