A recent project by the agency We Are Social used an AI to scrape brand profiles on Instagram found evidence that brands are still making damaging assumptions about who their decision-making audiences are and how they're talking to them. Strategy Director, Jenny Barthe explores the findings.

Earlier this month, we celebrated International Women’s Day. It’s a day when we can talk about huge progress in terms of women’s rights and equality in society. This year’s slogan ‘balance for better’ draws attention to the fact that we still have a long way to go when it comes to a balanced representation of women in the media and advertising. And, whilst general perception seems to be that the social media space is a more egalitarian and modern place where gender stereotyping isn’t a real issue - it would appear that isn’t always the case.

This came to light at We Are Social when, during a client project, we created an artificial intelligence tool that would scrape Instagram brand profiles and tell us how many men and women featured in each feed. When we tested it across a range of different categories, such as gaming, beer, automotive, childcare, cleaning and home cooking, we found that in most cases, images of men still dominated the categories that were traditionally male, and likewise, women featured more heavily in those considered traditionally female.

Our AI showed that one leading global gaming brand’s content skewed 68% male - despite research showing that women gamers make up 65% of all active gamers. All of the brands we looked at within childcare skewed heavily female - some as much as 78% - despite the fact that fathers are now spending more and more time with their children. So much for progress.

Understandably, brands want to reflect and resonate with their decision-making audience, but traditional category buying roles are changing. Research published earlier this year by Kantar showed that 87% of men now consider themselves a ‘main buyer’ for groceries for example, so it also seems commercially imprudent to neglect large sections of your decision-making audience. Importantly, as advertisers, we have the opportunity to do our bit to promote more modern views on the roles of men and women. Especially since it’s often down to a simple casting choice.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. Some brands are successfully defying the gender roles their category seems to dictate. Within automotive, Volkswagen was one such outlier, featuring 57% women in what appears to be a proactive approach to maintaining a balance of males and females. Amongst the top beer brands, Becks defied the category norms with 69% female-focused content, seemingly looking to appeal to younger, more equality-conscious demographics. Within the traditionally ‘female’ categories of childcare, cleaning and home cooking, only one brand showed a clear focus on defying gender stereotypes: Persil has managed to translate its progressive brand positioning 'Dirt is Good' into a modern approach to gender on instagram, featuring an equal balance of men and women parenting and in charge of cleaning clothes on in their Instagram feed.

Of course, there’s a lot more to gender stereotyping than weighing up how many women and men are featured - it’s also about how each gender is portrayed. The Kantar research found that while advertisers thought they were avoiding gender stereotypes, in fact almost half of consumers felt brands were still not getting it right.

Here are some key considerations for brands who want to avoid stereotyping: Showing women in jobs. Women are generally portrayed in domestic roles - only 8% of female characters on TV are shown as having a job and women are 48% more likely to be shown in the kitchen. Giving women more voice time. For example, in family films, male characters have two thirds of the dialogue (65%), compared to female characters who speak only a third of the time (35%). Feature female characters who are smart and funny - men are 62% more likely than women to be portrayed as smart, twice as likely to be shown as funny.

And it’s no longer a question of advertisers’ morals alone. From June this year, those presenting ‘harmful’ gender stereotyping in advertising will fall foul of official guidelines. The Committee of Advertising Practice announced towards the end of 2018 that presenting gender stereotypes that "are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence" will not be allowed. This includes situations like a man with his feet up while a woman cleans, or a woman showing inability to park a car.

As brands, agencies and marketers, how we decide to use our feeds is up to us. Using AI tools that recognise patterns is one way to help provide a warning system for when bad rules are adhered to. While the AI tool we have now is still very blunt, gender balance is a place to start - but there are many other equality issues to address. With 60% of the next generation of consumers - gen z - believing that gender should include options besides “man” or “woman”, sticking to worn-out traditional gender roles is a sign of a brand that is behind the times. It’s time to catch up with society and modernise the way we we think about gender.