Last week, while watching the video of Mary Beard’s excellent London Review of Books Winter Series lecture on Women in Power, I was struck by her focus on language – in particular on the way in which language which excludes women from power has become part of our everyday lexicon. Women, Beard points out, are often described as “grabbing” or “seizing” power – in other words, taking something that doesn’t belong to them. What’s most striking here is not the use of exclusionary language, but the fact that it is normal enough to pepper the headlines of most popular newspapers, reinforcing at a subliminal level, the idea that women shouldn’t hold positions of power.
As a B2B content specialist, I couldn’t help thinking about how often marketing language operates in the same way. While brochures, web pages and video scripts may not address the issue of women in power, they do often contain language that is subtly – and perhaps even unconsciously – angled towards men. Pick up the nearest piece of B2B collateral and you will probably find several examples of aggressive sporting or military metaphors. Obviously, women play sports and join the military, but such language is defined by and associated with male-dominated culture – and using it is a way of claiming the B2B marketing world as a male dominated space. Professor Raina Brands has explored the way on which such language promotes gender bias in her research.
This problem goes right back to the methodologies we used to define our audience and plan our content. As B2B marketers – particularly for the tech and telecoms industries – it’s easy to fall back on the idea that in a male-dominated industry, the only people we are marketing to are middle-aged, white men. As a result, we frequently craft our content in their image. On a recent client project for example, I was reviewing the first draft of some Day in the Life scenarios and was struck by the fact that all the characters in senior roles were depicted by middle-aged white men. I requested a change – but the creative team came up against a challenge: it’s incredibly difficult to find imagery of anyone other than an old, white male in a setting that lends them gravitas and power. Women and people of colour tend to be represented as youthful and up-and-coming. For our project, we managed to portray a more diverse range of individuals in the end, but the incident stayed with me as a stark lesson in just how strongly we associate business decision-making with one kind of person.
So, what do we do about it? Being more aware of the language we use is the first step. B2B marketers often make it their mission to eliminate industry jargon, so add gendered jargon to your hit-list too. Scan your copy for exclusionary terms and exchange them for more inclusive language: regardless of gender, not everyone reading sees their business as a military operation. When planning what you’re going to write, make a conscious effort to think about your audience. How do you imagine them? If you find yourself imagining a group who all fit exactly the same demographic, think again. Really question yourself and your motivations: are you taking the easiest option? Are you allowing unconscious bias to guide you? As you read, think about how people of different ages, genders and cultural backgrounds might read and react to your copy. It’s important to think beyond the words, too. Does the imagery alongside your content reinforce stereotypes by only reflecting white people, nuclear families, binary gender and heterosexual couples? If so, you could be weakening its impact.
Above all, be brave. Take this thinking to the rest of your team by going back to your stakeholder profiles and questioning their diversity. Start pushing back at suppliers of stock imagery and make it clear that they need to reflect a more diverse range of people at all organisational levels. Addressing these issues isn’t just good feminism: it’s good marketing, too. As we get better at distributing power fairly, we need to think carefully about the choices we make to ensure we’re addressing the B2B audience in its entirety. Which means thinking beyond men in suits.