Gender washing: seven kinds of marketing hypocrisy about empowering women
By Rosie Walters* –
At a time
of so much focus on how women are held back and treated unfairly, corporations
spend multiple millions telling us what they are doing to empower women and
girls. When this makes them seem more women-friendly than they really are, it’s
known as gender washing.
washing comes in different varieties, and some can be easier to spot than
others. To help identify them, it can be useful to look at the decades of
research on corporate greenwashing – that better known variant related to
a 2015 paper that identified seven varieties of
greenwashing, I have published a new paper that classifies seven kinds of
questionable corporate claims about empowering women and girls.
1. Selective disclosure
corporations publicise improvements in, say, female boardroom representation,
or the gender pay gap, while omitting contradictory or inconvenient
information, it’s known as selective disclosure.
example, pharma group Novartis frequently features on Working Mother magazine’s annual list of the 100
best companies to work for, via an application highlighting the progress it has
made in employment practices towards women. Novartis also proudly cites its
support for Working Mother, per the tweet below. Yet as recently as 2010, the corporation lost the then largest gender pay,
promotion and pregnancy discrimination case ever to go to trial.
2. Empty gender policies
companies take initiatives to raise women’s voices internally which, in
reality, have little impact. For example, “women’s networks” aim to increase
female employees’ confidence and help them build leadership skills through
networking events and mentoring schemes. But critics argue that such networks
are frequently ignored, and don’t address the underlying causes of
discrimination or engage men in efforts to tackle institutional sexism.
One study from 2007 found that the members of
one company’s women’s network feared it might actually damage their career
prospects because at the time, it was ridiculed by male colleagues as a forum
for “male-bashing” and exchanging recipes.
3. Dubious labelling
promotional placement of the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon by brands with
products containing known carcinogens or other arguably risky ingredients is an
example of this third kind of gender washing. There are examples involving makeup, alcoholic drinks and even pesticides.
ribbon can also gender wash the objectification of women. For example, US bar
chain Hooters has built its entire brand around waitresses with voluptuous
breasts and skimpy clothing. In the company logo, the two Os are replaced by
the eyes of an owl, symbolising breasts to be stared at, wide-eyed. Yet, once a
year for breast cancer awareness month, the eyes are replaced by pink ribbons
as Hooters invites customers to “give a hoot” for breast cancer awareness.
Staring is thus rebranded as caring.
4. Useful partnerships
One way in
which a corporation’s image could be gender-washed is to associate with a
feminist, women’s or girls’ organisation through funding or some other
assistance. The corporation gets to place its logo on the organisation’s
marketing materials, potentially distracting from practices elsewhere.
example, Dove has partnered with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl
Scouts on a teaching resource aimed at helping girls to question
dominant beauty standards that damage their self-esteem. This is despite the
beauty industry – of which Dove is part – perpetuating those standards to sell products.
5. Voluntary codes
abuses emerge in global supply chains – often most affecting female workers in
the global south – there are often demands for tighter regulation of corporate
behaviour. One way for corporations to respond and potentially deflect such
demands is by creating voluntary codes of practice. Their very voluntariness is
presented by corporations as evidence of a commitment to empowering workers –
codes rarely lead to meaningful improvements. For example, when the Rana Plaza
garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, over 1,000 garment factory
workers died, some 80% of them women. In the aftermath, the voluntary
Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety was established and promoted by western retailers such as Walmart
as improving safety and empowering female factory workers. Yet crucially, there
were no legally binding commitments to prevent another disaster, and
the alliance was later criticised by activists and researchers for
not improving conditions quickly enough.
6. Changing the
can position themselves as global leaders on issues where they have previously
been found wanting. For example in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Nike was dogged by claims of child labour, sexual
and physical abuse among workers at supplier factories, 90% of whom were
Nike’s response included establishing a division of
corporate responsibility and setting up the Nike Foundation. One of the
foundation’s flagship campaigns was the Girl Effect, launched in 2008 to
persuade global elites to invest in girls’ education in the global south.
campaign quickly went viral, and was soon partnering with the UK’s Department
for International Development on programmes to empower girls in the global
south. Nike had gone from a brand tarnished by accusations of child labour and
exploitation to a trusted partner in international efforts to promote girls’
7. Reassuring branding
Chiquita Banana, the famous logo of Chiquita Brands
Corporation, might give shoppers in the global north the impression of buying
their bananas from a happy, Latina market woman cheerfully selling her wares.
feminist scholars have documented the long history of Chiquita –
formerly the United Fruit Company – exploiting women on banana plantations in
Latin America and the Caribbean. This includes past cases of sexual harassment, discrimination, exposure to harmful chemicals, and violations of childcare and maternity rights.
Does all of
this matter? If corporations want to take up the cause of gender equality, is
that so bad? It is true that some women and girls do find ways within gender
washing campaigns to make gains, but we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
corporation’s employment practices, supply chains or products are harmful to
women and girls, and it sells more products thanks to gender washing, then this
has increased the harm done. That is why it is so important to identify and
call out forms of gender washing whenever we see them.
*Lecturer in International Relations, Cardiff
Disclosure statement: Rosie Walters receives funding from the Economic and Social Research
Council (ESRC) and is a member of the Women’s Equality Party. The ESRC is a
committee of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) created under the Higher
Education and Research Act 2017 alongside eight other committees.