Gender washing: seven kinds of marketing hypocrisy about empowering women

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  • Gender washing comes in different forms; selective disclosure, dubious labelling and empty gender policies.
  • Promotional placement of the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon by brands that sell products containing known carcinogens is an example of gender washing. 
  • Companies that have employment practices, supply chains or products that are harmful to women and girls then sell more products because of gender washing, this increases the harm done. 

At a time of so much focus on how women are held back and treated unfairly, corporations spend multiple millions telling us what they are doing to empower women and girls. When this makes them seem more women-friendly than they really are, it’s known as gender washing.

Gender washing comes in different varieties, and some can be easier to spot than others. To help identify them, it can be useful to look at the decades of research on corporate greenwashing – that better known variant related to climate change.

Inspired by a 2015 paper that identified seven varieties of greenwashing, I have published a new paper that classifies seven kinds of questionable corporate claims about empowering women and girls.

READ MORE | Femvertising: a step in the right direction or just ‘faux feminism’? 

1. Selective disclosure

When corporations publicise improvements in, say, female boardroom representation, or the gender pay gap, while omitting contradictory or inconvenient information, it’s known as selective disclosure.

For example, pharma group Novartis frequently features on Working Mother magazine’s annual list of the 100 best companies to work for, via an application highlighting the progress it has made in employment practices towards women. Novartis also proudly cites its support for Working Mother, per the tweet below. Yet as recently as 2010, the corporation lost the then largest gender pay, promotion and pregnancy discrimination case ever to go to trial.

2. Empty gender policies

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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