Opinion

Stripping away the unconscious bias

Bec Brideson

In this guest post Bec Brideson argues unconscious biases in the ad industry will not change until people start to take the conversation seriously.

Invisible privilege and sexism is all around us, but not more so than in the advertising industry.

When the Mumbrella editorial team decided to call M&C Saatchi and their choice of their 21st birthday “theme” the mostly anonymous comments that flooded in, exposed an undercurrent of strong opinions and emotion around the issue.

Some of the rhetoric exposes how threatened those with this privilege seem to feel about the possibility of losing their long held right to blatantly sexualise women in a work environment.

On the other hand those who aspire to live in an era of true equality can feel encouraged, thanks to this fearless and intelligent reportage lifting the lid on the boiling pot. Be it exposure of award-culture, the “ten-white-guys” diversity debate, or more recently the M&C Saatchi stripper-gate thankfully the tough-stuff is now on the agenda.

Recently at a discussion on diversity, I came off stage and ran into a well-known industry heavyweight. His stance seemed to centre on the fact that many women who complain about sexism and harassment are “asking for it or bring it on themselves”. I found myself dumbfounded and silent.

It took days to wash his comments off me. I had to convince myself that this kind of ignorance and victim blaming would be extinct by the time my young daughters enter the workforce.

I had always been counselled (by the nice guys that I genuinely trust in the industry), that I should keep quiet about the countless cases of sexism, sexual harassment and appalling behaviour by too many men I worked with. I was told that the only career that would be damaged by speaking up about it would be my own.

Which is why starting my own agency was such a watershed moment for me. Finally I was in control of my day-to-day working environment. Free from this behaviour that dwarfed me, and liberated to create a culture where women are allowed to be talented and ambitious without the side serve of unconscious bias.

Creating a state where men and women are allowed to be different but live as equals is where this century is headed. The ideas expressed, stories told, images created, and values embraced and espoused by our industry should spearhead us on this journey… not drag us back to Don’s department from the 50’s.

Cultural ignorance in our industry is not serving our clients. If an agency is under the brain-atrophied anaesthetic of “unconscious bias” how can it counsel its clients appropriately? Understanding what women really want and where they are at is our job.

Women account for 90% of purchases and are worth $28 of the $35 trillion global consumer economy. They are tantamount to brands survival. The old ways of selling that used to work, no longer meet the needs of female audiences.

And those trapped in old-world views of privilege and unconscious biases can’t see the future.

What we have currently is a perfect alignment of events, history and evolution bringing us into an age of enlightenment.

It’s Cricket Australia calling Chris Gayle to account. Melinda Tankard Reist educating us that “…Sexism doesn’t just happen. It happens when sexist men make it happen.” It’s Rosie Batty, the mum that wasn’t heard at the right time, who now will never give up fighting for children’s right to safety. It’s Michelle Payne winning the Melbourne Cup and proving the establishment needs to change its thinking.

This should be an industry course correcting and re-establishing our mores. And in doing so, steering our clients into greater profits, smart consumer-relationships and ensuring brands future successes.

For now, we must work to educate those unenlightened souls and be glad the media can put the right discussion on the table. Our industry should be the lighthouses of enlightenment and move society to a place that understands its audience.

Bec Brideson is the founder of agency Venus Comms

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