Advertisers rally behind women as the ‘she-cession’ crisis intensifies
When Burger King made a major misfire on International Women’s Day this week, tweeting the phrase “women belong in the kitchen,” social media lit up with furious women.
The actual tweet, by Burger King U.K., was part of a campaign meant to promote scholarships for culinary education for women, and it was only in subsequent tweets that the intended meaning was explained. But the incandescent reaction serves only to highlight that the issue of women's household roles is a tinder box.
Warning signs were already there. In January, a coronavirus-themed digital campaign by the U.K. government also provoked fury. The social media ad, with the tagline "Stay home, save lives," shown here by The Guardian, featured an illustration of four small houses. In three of them, female stick figures were depicted homeschooling, cleaning and ironing. In the other house, a man was pictured sitting on a sofa with a woman and child. The image went viral and was later pulled amid complaints of misogyny.
Women around the world are expressing rage and frustration after months in a pandemic that has threatened to derail their progress and has sparked the so-called “she-cession,” a term coined by C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). “Women are at this boiling point with how they’ve been treated,” says Berlin Cameron President Jennifer DaSilva, who recently worked on campaign for beauty brand No7 addressing the issue.
Reversing decades of progress
With families locked down at home, and schools closed in many parts of the world, not to mention restaurants, much of the burden of cooking, cleaning and childcare has fallen on women. According to a report published last week by organizations including the International Development Research Centre and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of women’s economic progress, with women on average now spending more than 30 hours a week looking after children. Another study, from the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, shows that during the pandemic, women have been more likely to be furloughed, have spent significantly less time working from home and have spent more time on unpaid household work and childcare.
While the so-called “gender chore gap” is just one aspect of the she-cession, it’s one that a number of advertisers are choosing to focus on. Procter & Gamble, for instance, ran a campaign for Dawn and Swiffer in the Super Bowl pre-game encouraging Americans to close the “chore gap” so family members share household work equitably. The company also launched a website, closethechoregap.com, which offers tips on chore sharing, including information on partner S’moresUp, a mobile app that aims to democratize household chores.
Addressing the chore gap
P&G, with its household products, has a clear link to the gender chore gap issue and has addressed it before (it won a Glass Lion in Cannes in 2015 for its Share the Load campaign for Ariel, in India). But a range of other brands are addressing it, whether to reflect changing family dynamics or engage with their female consumers.
Ikea, for example, focused on the chore gap in at least two different campaigns for International Women’s Day. But it's part of a long-term focus for the retailer, reflecting its own aim to achieve a 50/50 gender split at all levels of management of the firm by 2022.
One campaign, an Instagram card game called FiftyFifty, poses questions about household work designed to spark debate between couples playing together. Designed to be a digital version of on analog card games such as "Cards Against Humanity," it asks questions like "Do you do any household chores that go unnoticed?" and includes a poll that evaluates how equal your relationship is.
The idea (promoted in a video by Swedish pop star Zara Larsson, seen above) was sparked by the amount of time couples have been spending at home in the pandemic, says Martin Jon Adolfsson, creative director at Edelman U.K., which created the campaign. “When you both work from home it becomes very apparent, for example, when one partner ends up taking care of the kids much more than the others. There is also the mental burden—even if in normal times you had help at home, someone had to be in charge of that help.”
Another Ikea campaign, which ran on Italian social media last week, took issue with the kind of language used to describe household chores. Ads with captions such as “Don’t help with her the cleaning” are designed to illustrate that the very phrase “Can I help?” assumes that housework is primarily the woman’s job. According to Alessandro Sciarpelletti, executive creative director at We are Social in Milan, which created the campaign, it's one of a number of ways Ikea is trying to improve life at home and reflect wider societal issues.
Other advertisers are tackling the question of childcare as women work from home. A recent campaign by Wunderman Thompson for U.K. telecom firm BT featured an interactive film running on social media, that puts the viewer in the shoes of a woman juggling a big work deadline and an unexpected childcare issue when she’s asked to look after her niece by her key worker sister. At one point, she’s forced to crouch in her laundry room while taking a call from her (female) boss.
"The lockdown has humanized people; everyone has something going on in the background despite the fact they are trying to be professional,” says Ruth Fidler, business director on BT at Wunderman Thompson. “The blurring of the lines between home and work has been a huge issue, and we now have an insight into people’s home lives as well." However, BT took the deliberate decision not to focus on a parent, but another woman affected by childcare issues. "This was an opportunity to paint a broader picture," adds creative director Richard Morgan. "There has been a lot about working parents in the pandemic, but some people's support bubbles are bigger than that, for example, supporting family with emergency care."
Providing practical help
Other advertisers have focused more widely on the problems affecting women with action-based campaigns. Unilever, for example, has been putting millions into helping women-owned businesses and children who lack computers or WiFi access for home schooling.
In January, Walgreens Boots Alliance cast a spotlight on the “she-cession” in a campaign for its No7 beauty brand called “Unstoppable Together.” Created via WPP’s Team WBA in partnership with Berlin Cameron and VML/Y&R, the campaign was designed not only to empathize with struggling women but to help them return to the workplace.
“We wanted to have the widest impact possible because millions of women are out of a job,” says Anisha Raghavan, chief marketing officer, Global Brands Americas at Walgreens Boots Alliance. “Our goal was to raise awareness of the issue, because nobody was really talking about it yet, and also to provide the real practical help.”
As well as a brand film, No7 hosted a virtual jobs summit on Feb. 24, with speakers including Maria Shriver and Arianna Huffington. It was attended by more than 8,000 people. According to Berlin Cameron President Jennifer DaSilva, live chat was “blowing up” during the event, with women connecting on LinkedIn. That led to recruitment offers, with some women even interviewed at WPP. The brand has also held smaller careers coaching sessions, in partnership with The Female Quotient.
Having started in the U.S., No7 now aims to roll the campaign out to the U.K. market. There, with the country now heading out of lockdown, it will soon be apparent whether the “she-cession” is a temporary phenomenon or one that’s here to stay. “The long-term impact is that this will extend the gender pay gap by another five percent,” warns Raghavan. “But we believe we’ve hit on something that’s really powerful and resonates with our audience.”