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International Women’s Day: Quit the “fluffy” marketing and tackle the gender pay gap and sexism


Behind the facade of inspirational International Women’s Day posts, you’ll likely stumble across a flurry of companies scrambling to engage in performative activism about female equality.

The figures paint a different picture. The IPA’s recent agency census revealed although there’s been a shift from recent years, a significant gender pay gap of 17.4% in favour of men still exists across the agency world. 

The picture is bleak across the tech sector too. The gender pay gap at tech start-ups in the UK more than double the national average, with women paid 70p for every £1 men earn, according to a study by salary benchmarking platform Figures.

Launched out of frustration about International Women’s Day being hijacked by businesses hiding a gender pay gap last year, Manchester-based freelance copywriter Francesca Lawson and software developer Ali Fensome decided to create a Gender Pay Gap bot account on Twitter to spark a conversation about pay disparity.

“The reason that we created this was to keep the focus of the day on the truth and not hide that behind the glossy photo shoots and inspirational quotes knocked up in Canva on usually a script font on a pink background. It’s all very cut and paste, very predictable,” Francesca Lawson told Prolific North.

“We need awareness days because we’re not taking enough notice and working to challenge inequality throughout the year.”

This year, the account will now highlight both last year’s gender pay gap stats together with the figures from this year. The stats are pulled from the government’s gender pay gap service to catch any business “trying to flex equality credentials unjustifiably”.

“It’s all about being informative and putting this data back into the public eye and using it to produce more accountability and honesty,” she emphasised.

Recalling her own experience battling against executives and directors asking her to run comms for national awareness days despite “feeling I’m experiencing sexism on an almost daily basis”, she was left questioning what a post would actually achieve.

“I said: ‘What can we say that we’ve done as a company that’s made a tangible difference to the lives of marginalised people?’ You can’t just be very flattering towards women on one day of the year while underpaying them for the other 364.”

“It’s a source of personal frustration for me, seeing these days used as a marketing opportunity with no real commitment and investment into why companies want to post and what is actually being done to resolve the inequalities within their organisation,” she explained.

“The goal was never to stop companies from communicating about International Women’s Day, it was just to provide a factual counterpoint to the motion led, fluffy, vague messages.”

Lisa Maynard-Atem, marketing director at education provider Acacia Training and a director at Black United Representation Network (BURN) and social enterprise The Blair Project, agreed.

“In a world where individuals and organisations like to jump on the bandwagon of every social cause and declare how much they care, it’s really refreshing to see the Gender Pay Gap bot shining a light on the hypocrisy that still exists. How can you say you believe in gender equality when you pay the female members of your workforce less than their male counterparts?”

Everyday sexism

The gender pay gap is just one of the many issues bubbling away beneath the surface. During a recent meeting with a board filled with white men, Lisa was met with a sexist remark when she quizzed the company on why they had no female representatives.

“One of them said: ‘Well, women are great but when they get pregnant…’ I said: ‘Don’t finish that sentence..’. I just thought breathe, Lisa. Don’t lose your temper. What scares me is what do they say when women aren’t present? The problem is we’ve almost all accepted it.

Lisa Maynard-Atem

“You have boards with individuals that make big decisions that impact so many people. How do we not have a wide cross section of people at those tables? How can a group of white cis, able-bodied men be making decisions on behalf of women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community? It just blows my mind.”

Female representation on boards is beginning to improve though. The FTSE Women Leaders Review, a government-backed report, recently revealed women’s share of board seats at 350 of the UK’s biggest listed companies reached 40% for the first time in 2022.

But there’s still work to be done. “There’s that additional layer when you are a person of colour,” explained Lisa. “When I was a young woman, I’ve ended up in situations where I’ve been offered jobs but for the wrong reasons.

“I don’t want a job because of what I look like or because I’m female, I want the job because I’m the best person for the job. I’ve been passed over for promotions and I have been turned down for jobs because I’m black.”

“Until the boardroom looks like a street in the UK, we’ve got a problem,” agreed Kate Hardcastle (MBE). Known as ‘The Customer Whisperer’, Kate is a former senior marketer for brands such as Silentnight and founder of consumer insight consultancy Insight with Passion.

Suffering with endometriosis, a condition that can affect women of any age where tissue similar to the lining of the womb grows outside of the uterus, she didn’t feel comfortable confiding what was happening behind closed doors at the time.

“I was worried it was seen as weak”

“I was plagued with endometriosis. I was taking all my paid leave so I could have procedures because I didn’t want to tell anyone. There was only me as a female on the board of representatives with men. I didn’t want to have a conversation with anyone about leave or being ill, I was worried it was seen as weak. I was doing a disservice to other women.

“To be in a situation where I was coming back wearing extra bronzer looking like I’d been on holiday, when in reality I’d been laid up after having procedures, it’s just ridiculous.”

Kate Hardcastle
Kate Hardcastle

When a new chief executive came in, all it took was being “treated like a human being”.

“I was able to tell him about endometriosis as his wife had it. I could start being ill and not panicking that I was going to walk back in from a procedure and lose my job.”

She’s faced a dilemma about appearing at International Women’s Day events too, after someone made a comment about the clothes she was wearing.

“I’ve never worn traditional clothes, I’m an ex-singer and I feel comfortable in my style. I had a leather jacket and a dress, which is more commonplace now than it was 10 years ago. I got on the stage and the first person got to me and said: ‘That was brilliant. I don’t care what anyone says, I think you look great.’ I just thought… wow.”

It’s clearly just the tip of the iceberg as she details numerous encounters with sexism, an experience undoubtedly shared by many. She had to call out a boss who described his marketing team as “the girls” and when she was doing TV work whilst pregnant with twins, her agent showed her an email saying she would then be “indisposed”.

She’s now a big champion of supporting women and girls into sport through her work as the founder of Women in Sport North, and believes change needs to come from the top. 

“It shouldn’t be what you can achieve for yourself, it’s got to be collaborative. Don’t send the elevator back down, get in the elevator and take the next person up with you. Tell them what they can expect and tell them what they’re going to need to know. I sure as hell wish someone had done that for me all those years ago.”

Kate Hardcastle
Kate Hardcastle

It’s a similar sentiment shared by Lisa: “Some people get to the top and they don’t want to send the lift back down but you didn’t get there on your own. I have had a lot of support from family, friends and colleagues. Vikki Sylvester, who gave me my job at Acacia Training (and who also started the business over 20 years ago), has really encouraged me. Nobody gets to the position they’re in on their own. I think it’s really important that when you get there, not only are you grateful, but you pay that forward.

“How are people going to get to those top tables, if you’re not willing to give them a seat at the table, if you’re not willing to open doors? In order for everybody to rise and be equal, people already at the top have to be willing to give other people opportunities.”

Lisa Maynard-Atem
Lisa Maynard-Atem

So what needs to change and how should businesses approach the day instead? “You’ve got to be honest about what your own problems are and show some humility and share what you’re doing to solve them. Ideally, don’t wait till International Women’s Day to talk about it,” said Francesca.

“If your company is working towards improving equality and making the organisation a better place for women and marginalised people, then talk about it all year round. Be an active voice in that community. Be an ally, rather than just waiting until it’s a trending topic and the chance of scoring some easy likes.”

Although businesses might be “petrified about making the wrong step” on national awareness days, if inequality is being addressed behind the scenes, that’s what matters most.

“I don’t want a discount, I want to be paid fairly,” Kate emphasised. “I want to know that my daughter has a better work environment than I did, where you have to fight people off from harassment from trying to use your sex as some kind of weapon against you and having to work twice as hard to prove your worth.”

For Lisa, her advice is for companies to “start walking the walk before talking the talk”.

“None of us are perfect and we all have work to do when it comes to embedding equality into the very DNA of our society but it’s important that we get our own houses in order before we start to broadcast our commitment to change. And most importantly, pay women equally!”

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