Women are wholly responsible for their own pay gap inequality, says a government advisor in response to BBC revelations that top women earn far less than top men. Sir Philip Hampton plays the usual blame game. ‘Let’s tell women it’s their fault, and then it becomes their problem to resolve.’ Holding the victim accountable makes things easy. It’s a tried and tested way of avoiding liability.
Remedial suggestions that women should simply ask more frequently and more forcefully for higher wages are tosh. The pay gap is not so simple and should be viewed as symptomatic of a much bigger cultural disorder. In common parlance, some ‘experts’ don’t know what they don’t know. So let’s reflect.
The permanent state of being undermined and undervalued as a girl and woman is built into the system so effectively that most boys and men are stupendously oblivious of the benefits they receive from such a paradigm. While women struggle to maintain daily dignity and self-esteem, studies show lower levels of female confidence result from a mass media that routinely objectifies women. This plays out in a whole host of personal and professional scenarios – the pay gap being only one example.
It’s something MP Jo Swinson has repeatedly brought to the attention of advertisers and image-makers in an attempt to progress a more ethical portrayal of body image and, having worked with Swinson some years ago, when she was minister for women and equalities and I was co-director of the fashion initiative All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, I’ve seen slow progress. So while we wait for those dragging their feet, resistance to what’s out there right NOW is vital. Understanding how media imagery can truly mess with your mind is the first step towards refusing to internalise the evaluative gaze and, possibly, even securing a better pay deal.
It begins with knowing how we process imagery – without this crucial intelligence, we let others off the hook while they, in turn, make us culpable. There is no shortage of Sir Philips out there and many is the time I’ve heard image producers happily abandon all moral responsibility. 'C’mon now,' they say, 'surely women are clever enough to deconstruct the passive and perfected exteriors they see in advertising and smart enough to ignore the ubiquitous sexualised fembot that occupies billboards, buses and screens, and resilient enough to override body image pressure from repeat viewing of a teenage coat hanger parading Parisian catwalk cool.'
Nope, it ain’t so. Our brains don’t have the processing space to attend to each messed-up gender stereotypical narrative contained within the estimated 3,000 images we consume weekly. Younger viewers (the brain’s pre-frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s) will struggle even more. No woman should feel bad about this; just angry that so much effortful thinking is required to stay sane.
Cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted a lifetime to exploring the brain’s power of rationalisation or how we think we are explaining our world to ourselves. Author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, he brings together numerous studies to clarify that the speed with which we unconsciously process information prevents hyper-vigilant attendance, meaning: we simply don’t have the battery power to deconstruct image after image and observe ourselves and our thoughts as we do this, and all while we are working longer hours than men to take home the equivalent wage. In addition, repetition of an image or scenario can play a huge role in normalising what we are seeing. The thin catwalk mannequin, the perfect (airbrushed) complexion of a beauty model and the pneumatic breasts of a glamour girl have become norms as well as triggers to self-objectify. And we don’t even know we are doing it.
A recent Girlguiding study found that 87% of their young members felt that women were judged more on their appearance than their ability. In last week’s Grazia, writer Barbara Bourland recounted the story of a friend who prioritised Botox above her rent because she was afraid of getting fired for being too ugly.
In such a climate of misery, good women – psychologically disadvantaged to believe their intellectual contribution is worth nothing, let alone more – are weary warriors in need of re-enforcements.
Recognising the harm of objectification upon female self-esteem has to be a vital and immediate game-changer. As one of the seminar participants on the recent Advertising Standards Authority project looking at gender stereotypes, I and others lobbied for swift improvement in tackling the output of advertisers that evoke the evaluative gaze.
The hated Beach Body Ready campaign of 2015 is a good example of encouragement to self-objectify. Attracting angry graffiti, dismissive press and prompting 380 complaints to the ASA, the company was not found in breach of so-called accepted standards. "Beach Body Ready does not objectify" we were told back then but psychologists say otherwise, and so should every woman on the planet. Studies clearly show self-objectification leads to diminished attentional resources (which simply means less brain power for the things that matter) along with low self-esteem, which can progress to depression and other serious conditions such as eating disorders. So the sooner we clarify for ourselves that showcasing a body to be evaluated separately from the personhood of the model in the image – in other words, suggesting that a woman’s major purpose or function is to be looked at and measured up for attractiveness – the sooner we reveal the truth of the matter.
Ella Smillie, who led the ASA report into gender stereotypes in advertising, was keen to address this particular point in an advertising standards overhaul launched last month by MP Jess Phillips in response to findings from a variety of committees like mine: “Previously ‘accepted standards’ were used to decide whether offence had been caused and now we realise that ‘offence’ is not always the most appropriate measure – we need to consider the potential for harm as well. We have learned about the cumulative effects of ads that objectify and recognise that they have the potential to cause harm. Another key finding from our evidence is acknowledgment for the value of giving weight to the perspective of those depicted or represented in ads.”
New standards to be applied by the ASA will be formalised over the next few months and are expected to come into force next year.
So, time to celebrate – but not by taking your foot off the gas. The pay gap exists because gender disparity is built into our experience of ourselves as women going back way further than beach bodies in bikinis. Doing away with the toxic drip-feed from advertisers is one area for advancement but we can take matters into our own hands, too. Unpicking our own conditioning to conform to unachievable beauty standards and recognising the doubt that the evaluative gaze can introduce into our sense of self is something we can all do now as well as demanding a pay packet that equals the boys'.