New Zealand corporates can pledge their commitment to gender equality and align their brands with female empowerment all they like, but it means nothing if they don’t walk the walk.

A recent Saturday afternoon was grotty so plonking myself in front of the fire with a pile of glossy magazines seemed sensible. An afternoon flicking through other people’s impeccably tidy houses and ogling at exotic recipes I will never make.

But what I was not prepared for was just how many times I was told about the little pot of cream I obviously so desperately needed to buy. Such purchases promised to make my life fulfilling and ensure I reached my potential as a strong, independent woman.

‘Femvertising’, in my case trying to sell me female empowerment in cosmetic form, has grown in popularity over the last decade. Global advertising awards now even have award categories for it. 

The reason is because it works.

Women, particularly millennial women, will be attracted to and more likely to purchase products with female empowerment messages. We like products that tell us we can be successful.

But we are also not stupid. 

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While corporate hypocrisy may have always been with us, the increasing use of value-based marketing means opportunities for gaps between what corporates do and their glossy ads has grown.

Green-washing is a live issue with Converse’s air-cleaning murals being questioned last week. While the paint they used may suck up pollutants as the company claims, the environmental impact of making the paint may well out-strip its benefits. 

This got me thinking about whether ‘gender-washing’ is a thing as well. 

There seem to be a myriad of ways New Zealand corporates can pledge their commitment to gender equality like gender ticks, signing up to gender principles and joining the Champions of Change. 

While these aren’t ‘femvertising’ per se, signing on aligns their brands with female empowerment.

I didn’t have to look very hard to find those who have made public pledges and little progress towards gender equality in their organisations (or worse, gone backwards) since signing up.

Take the Champions for Change. They are a group of 55 leading CEOs and chairs each “with a personal mission to accelerate inclusive and diverse leadership in our workplaces”.

That a group of corporate leaders are working together to champion gender equality is to be celebrated. 

Their 2018-2020 progress reports show that after an initial flush of appointments of women to their boards and senior management teams, progress across the group is steady.   

But digging into the detail, not all are making progress. 

Bell Gully, KPMG and Fonterra reported less than 20 percent women on their boards and no progress. ASB and Genesis Energy even reported sliding backwards towards 20 percent women in senior leadership roles.

I could go on. But you get the picture. No gold medal for these so-called Champions. 

Reporting on ethnic representation also shows how few Māori and Pasifika leaders hold board and senior leadership positions in these corporates.

Perhaps these figures can be easily explained through low turnover or something else. 

But what if that something else is corporates signing up as Champions, taking pledges, and getting ticks just for the brand benefits.

What if they are all talk and no trouser?

Well just like those expensive pots of silky white creams that are unlikely to deliver the empowered, self-actualising lifestyle they promise, as customers, investors, shareholders, regulators, and potential employees, we should call out any BS we find.

And I think I will stick to reading novels on rainy weekends.

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