Progressive portrayal of women: … Reflections on how we continue to shift the narrative


“As our daughters take flight, we will look back and know that this was all worth it.”

Growing up, I was exposed to a rather diverse spectrum of expressions on how women are treated and should be treated. One of these expressions stood tall for me. I had a very good example of what a female role model should look like with my late grandmother. Mama was authentically Ghanaian and very much a global citizen.

As an educationist by profession, she was Principal of Kyebi Training College and once an Assistant Director of Education. She was educated in Ghana, Scotland, and the United States. She was articulate, soft spoken and always immaculately dressed. She was one of the most thoughtful and well-mannered people one could ever encounter.

Many aspects of her life represent a shining example of what I want for myself, my daughters and all the women who are represented in the advertising, media and entertainment industries today.

When I observe how women are depicted in these industries today, I see so many little inferences that I can draw from my time with her. My reflections here are about lighting a pathway for my generation and generations to come.

Fading stereotypes – Breaking the mold one piece at a time.

As a young teenager, she always made me feel like I could do anything I set my mind to, even when I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

In commercials today, anytime there is a role for a caregiver, naturally, that caregiver is assumed to be a woman. Whereas if the role is a corporate board member, it is safely assumed to be a man. In short, women are much more likely to be pictured at home than men.

Stereotypes are not going to be a thing of the past in the short, medium or long term. I can safely say that it will require recalibration of quite a few generations, and even with that, stereotypes might linger for a while. Amidst the drive to break the molds of stereotypes, we must acknowledge the incremental progress we make in reframing the narrative.

A lot of gender roles are evolving in real life. More and more men are providing a solid support system to their partners with young children – feeding and changing diapers and bonding with their children on a meaningful level. They are making a conscious effort to be more involved in raising children beyond meting out discipline – the weight of the “wait till your father comes home” threat is evolving. Fatherhood is being seen beyond being a provider. It’s beginning to wield more emotional currency.

There are also significant shifts with women today. Women are taking on significant roles beyond the home in advocacy groups, boardrooms, as entrepreneurs, and as bread winners. Women are driving significant change and reform in positions of authority in government, corporate Ghana, social enterprise and community development.

Today, young girls have countless role models. The lesson here for my industry is to begin to portray women based on today’s reality in our communication.  Evolving roles need to be depicted, offering women a mirror that shows them that they do not have to be stuck in the past, and more importantly, they can do whatever they set their minds to.

Ultimately, this allows us to nurture the next generation of young people who have an open mind and inspire them to strive to give women an equal chance in the workplace and community as a whole. 

Coming to the fore as leaders – Nurturing an army of female creative leaders

Though often left unacknowledged, women have always played significant roles in the home, in business and society. My lessons from Mama were also based on her achievements. Female Principal of the prestigious Kyebi Teacher Training College and Assistant Director of Education?

Forgive me, I might be a little biased here! It is not far-fetched to say there is a growing trend of female leaders. There are a lot of successful businesses globally and in Ghana that are run by women. There are several well-known organizations like IBM, General Motors and Best Buy appointing women as their Chief Executive Officers (CEO).

In Ghana, the financial, telecommunication and FMCGs sectors have taken a big step with women being at the forefront. Let’s have a quick roll call of some amazing female personalities who are leading businesses. Talk of Patricia Obo-Nai, CEO of Vodafone Ghana, Abena Osei Poku, CEO of Absa Bank Ghana, Mansa Nettey, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, Abena Amoah, Deputy Managing Director of Ghana Stock Exchange, Khadijah Amoah, MD for Aker Energy, Freda Duplan, Chairperson of The Board of Directors at Zenith Bank Plc. The list is very long.

The media and creative agencies are also making a conscious effort to take big steps, with the likes of Norkor Duah, CEO of MullenLowe Accra, Beatrice Agyemang, Group CEO of Media General, Edith Dankwa, CEO of Business and Financial Times, and Esther Cobbah, CEO of StratComm Africa paving the way.

For us as Creatives, one of our greatest goals at Ogilvy Africa is to increase the number of female creative leaders we have. We have women represented in key roles across different aspects of the business and we are currently making significant strides to meeting our 50-50 representation targets on our leadership team and across the business.

Personally, I can’t overemphasize the balance that female creative leaders bring to the table. The ability to bring their multiple sixth senses of intuition, empathy, honesty and perceptiveness to the table is of significant value to our business growth.

It is laudable that we are working our way towards making sure that more and more women are coming into leadership positions within our industry. 

You don’t have to be half naked to be beautiful – the dichotomy of playing safe versus standing out.

Becoming wallpaper is not an option for women who want to be make a difference. Leaving a mark requires authenticity, courage, breaking glass ceilings and simply standing out.

My Mama taught me that I could stand out without losing my self-worth, the values I hold dear or myself entirely in the vast gray ocean that lies between the pillars of right and wrong.

Today, media stereotypes of what beauty should look like are wreaking havoc on young girls, teenagers, and women. “You have to be a certain size”, “Have you tried this diet?”, “Oh, waist trainers are a must have”, “Without cleavage he won’t like you”, “Tight is always better”, “I know a doctor who can make your hips bigger”, “Your nose could be smaller”. The list of things that define beauty is endless.

The worldview of beauty drives women to various extremes that not only impact their self-esteem and self-worth negatively, but also has significant implications on the stability of their mental health today. Brands like Dove have made a consistent effort to redefine beauty stereotypes and they bring incremental change.

In our local context, I believe that the advertising, media and entertainment industries should also celebrate women who are authentic and do not follow the media-driven standards of beauty. Women should be allowed to be more of themselves and less of what they see in fashion magazines and on TV shows. 

Shaping the narrative through media, advertising and entertainment:

“A better tomorrow for women started generations ago and continues with us today.” Akua Owusu-Nartey

Through these discussions and some commitments, I make to mentoring young girls and women, I see myself as contributing to building a better world for all women – including my daughters – in my own very small way. We should be mindful that whatever we do has a huge impact on tomorrow, and that is why we need to work together to shift the story of how women are portrayed.

We must be intentional about the role we play in shaping the narrative in the media, advertising and entertainment industry today.

I believe there are opportunities to tell a positive story that truly represents women and opens them up to limitless opportunities. As this conversation continues, I hope that we will see stereotypes continuing to fade, women defining beauty for themselves, and more women in leadership roles, all in service of depicting women in a progressive fashion. 

The writer is the Regional Managing Director, Ogilvy Africa

Leave a Reply