Gender stereotyping and “that girl boss thing”

Published on 02 June 2020

ASA ruling against PeoplePerHour.

The question

How careful do you need to be with language in an ad against the backdrop of the ASA’s new rules on gender stereotyping? 

The key takeaway

Screen every statement in your ad from a gender-stereotyping perspective, and don’t think that light-hearted phraseology will somehow let you off the hook.

The background

In June 2019, the ASA introduced a new rule which states that ads “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”. The ‘likely to’ addition has significantly lowered the threshold for breach and led to a stream of ads being banned for gender stereotyping.  

The ad

PeoplePerHour is an online platform that connects businesses and freelancers. They ran an ad on the London Underground which featured a picture of a red-haired woman next to text that stated “YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE’LL DO THE SEO THING”, (SEO standing for Search Engine Optimisation).

The response

19 complainants believed that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by depicting a woman running a business in a patronising way and by implying that women were not technologically skilled. In response, PeoplePerHour said that the intention of the campaign was to celebrate entrepreneurs and business owners and that the term “girl boss” was a reference to a book and popular TV show.

PeoplePerHour acknowledged that the execution might unintentionally come across as sexist and demeaning to women and had therefore taken steps to rectify it by removing the word “girl” from the ad and issuing a public apology on their website. 

The decision

The ASA upheld the complaints and banned the ad. It said that using the gendered term “girl boss”, as opposed to just “boss”, implied that the gender of the person depicted was relevant to their performance in a managerial or entrepreneurial role and that it was also likely to be interpreted that a female “boss” was an exception to the norm. Furthermore, the use of the word “girl” to refer to an adult woman reinforced the impression that a female “boss” was a novelty, playing at their role and somehow less serious than a man in the same position. 

The ASA acknowledged that the term “girl boss” made reference to a book and TV show about a female entrepreneur and resulting use of that term more widely in popular culture. However, it considered that many people viewing the ad were unlikely to be familiar with that reference.

Why is this important?

This decision provides another example of the ASA’s strict interpretation of its new rules on gender stereotyping in ads. Once again, the ASA has demonstrated that it is willing to find that harmful stereotypes are perpetuated even if the underlying intention of the ad was to achieve the opposite reaction, in this case, to celebrate female entrepreneurs, not undermine them.

Any practical tips?

Advertisers should take great care in ensuring that their ads do not suggest that stereotypical roles or characteristics are always associated with one gender. The text of an ad should be reviewed with the new rule in mind, as one word is enough to see an ad fall foul! Catching a potential problem early may save an otherwise clever (and no doubt expensive) campaign from being banned. 

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