The role of marketing in breaking unconscious gender bias

The role of marketing in breaking unconscious gender bias

Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists isn’t enough, action is needed to level the playing field.

The objective of this article is to outline what is unconscious gender bias, what it does and how marketing professionals can play a role in breaking gender bias.

What is unconscious gender bias

Bias is a systemic prejudice for, or against something or someone, based on things like stereotypes. Biases can adversely impact our judgment, causing us to make non-fact-based decisions in favor of one person or group to the detriment of others.

For many people, suggesting that they have an unconscious bias might sound like a personal criticism, but the reality is far more complex. Unconscious gender bias can exist at every level of society, not just at the office level or in the marketplace. This ‘multi-level’ discrimination hurts women by denying them a voice in key decision-making processes and choices that may go against the framework society has placed them in.

An example is a research published in the European Journal of Finance that showed that professional financial advisors with millionaire clients consider female investors to be less knowledgeable about investments than men and to have less control over their investment portfolios.

People are naturally biased. Even when you intend to be completely fair, your brain has a hard time remaining impartial. Cognitive biases are the mind’s way of making associations between two concepts automatically. These helpful mental shortcuts allow us to process information rapidly and prevent the brain from being overwhelmed by information. We instinctively place people into categories using criteria like:

  • skin colour
  • weight
  • age
  • gender
  • accent
  • level of education
  • sexuality
  • socio economic status

This categorisation saves our brain time when absorbing and processing information, thereby allowing us to use our mental resources for other tasks. According to recent research, unconscious biases are extensions of our ‘predictive brains’ attempting to find patterns in often arbitrary groups of people – even when those patterns don’t exist or are based on stereotypes.

The result of unconscious gender bias

Unfortunately, this unconscious bias can affect our behaviour in undesirable ways, and prevent us from acting in our own best interests. Categorising people can lead us to make assumptions about them that might not be true, and even alienate people unintentionally. Even if we don’t consciously believe in stereotypes, our brain has a natural tendency to rely on them.

Unconscious gender bias can result in serious issues with recruitment, as the best potential candidates are often unfairly ignored. Even worse, unconscious gender biases can actually cost organisations billions of dollars through low staff retention, reputational damage, and a failure to attract diverse candidates. This can mean low female representation at a managerial level – despite significant evidence showing that higher female board membership makes for a more profitable organisation overall.

To overcome the unconscious gender bias that is built-in to our brain, we need to question our beliefs and decisions, even when they ‘feel’ right.

Marketing professionals can play a role in mitigating these triggers of unconscious bias in society.

 “We’ve been trying to tackle the world’s hardest problems with only 50 percent of our collective brainpower. It’s time for that to change. By bringing more women into positions of power and influence, we can finally use the full measure of humanity’s talents and ambitions. We need all the best ideas, and the most courageous leaders, to conquer the challenges ahead.”

Melinda Gates Co-Chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The role of marketing in breaking unconscious bias

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

Reimagining gender roles in advertising

Television advertisements do not only communicate the value of a brand but project the aspirations of the target audience and reflect how they desire to see themselves, whether in terms of family aspirations or wealth attainment.

Marketers usually reflect societal gender roles in these adverts, for example the role of a woman as the cook or a man as a mechanic. These are stereotypes steeped in societal bias, that can be transformed by marketers by reimagining gender roles in all advertising creatives.

These advertising creatives impact society’s image of what is normal or desirable, thus adverts are a powerful platform for marketers to address and break gender stereotypes. Marketers can reshape mindsets and communicate a new normal that is progressive and diverse.

A great example is the Nestle Maggi advertisement, ‘Maggi Monkwo’ which went against the grain, by portraying the men as the cooks, while the women tasted the food.

We need more creatives like that, with women as race car drivers, mechanics and tech supports. This must not be an anomaly; marketers must challenge the creatives submitted by agencies to bring awareness to unconscious gender bias in society.

Using internal communication as a tool

Marketers have two customers, the internal customer and the external customer. The internal customers are staff, stakeholders and value chain members; while external customers are the target audience who consume the organisation’s goods or services. They are of equal importance; the internal customers buy in when launching new products or running a communications campaign is critical to marketing success.

Marketers must not just look at internal communication tools in relation to products only, but as a way to influence the internal customer to break ingrained gender bias.

This can be done by using internal newsletters to give visibility to women in the organisation. Invite profile women on your company’s Intranet to speak at leadership meetings and post their photos and a compelling quote on your social media platforms. Visibility and promotion play a big role in changing attitudes, breaking down the unconscious bias barrier and opening possibilities for any female employees that want to aspire to greater heights.

Get creative inputs from all departments on finding new ways to eliminate unconscious bias around female employees and closing the gender gap.

Sponsorship of female mentorship programmes

Sponsorship is an effective communication tool for the marketer, when used effectively to communicate the brand’s values and gain positive brand association.

Marketers can use sponsorship budget to promote and affiliate with organisations that promote female mentorship.

In 2015, Airtel focused on promoting women in STEM by organising a competition targeted at female owned start-ups in the Tech space. This is a great example of promoting images of women who are working in traditionally male-dominated spaces, an effective way of breaking bias and inspiring younger women.

Marketers must choose to sponsor programs that expose girls to appealing examples of leadership that will help them develop the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in a wide variety of fields. Most often girls avoid leadership because they fear appearing bossy or too ambitious. Supporting programmes that promote roundtable discussions or panels which focus on female leaders like Lucy Quist, Angela Kyeremanten-Jimoh or Adoma Peprah speaking to groups of young women, will motivate these young women to believe that leadership is not only reserved for men, hence, it is possible to them to attain such heights in business leadership,.

“Gender equality is a moral and a business imperative. But unconscious bias holds us back, and de-biasing people’s minds has proven to be difficult and expensive. Diversity training programmes have had limited success, and individual effort alone often invites backlash. Behavioural design offers a new solution. By de-biasing organisations instead of individuals, we can make smart changes that have big impacts.” – Iris Bohnet, Harvard University


>>>Adeline is Marketing Manager at L’Oreal West Africa in charge of Garnier. Maybelline New York and Dark & Lovely. For over ten years, she has built knowledge in brand building in beauty, food and education.

She is passionate about branding with experience working with big brands at Unilever, Olam and L’Oreal. She has keen interest in motivating young women to be their best in every endeavour. She has an MBA in Entrepreneurship and professional diploma in marketing. She is an author, with two academic books on marketing and research. Follow her on LinkedIn –

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