Reflections on Italy's position in the international landscape and the urgency of addressing the gender issue.
In the aftermath of the scandal that has rocked the world of communication, what journalists - from the Times in Great Britain to the Repubblica and Corriere della Sera in Italy - have called the "#metoo of advertising", the industry associations (PR, advertising, digital media...) are proposing a united front and the promotion of an Ethical Code as a guarantee of safety. Beyond the immediate reactions, and the investigations that will have to be conducted, this affair has brought the issue of gender equality to public attention, on which our country struggles to position itself as it should.
This article wants to propose some reflections and some questions. Talking about gender bias means explicitly opening a moment of dialogue between men and women (and not of women against men) present in various industries, not just the 'marcomm'. In fact, gender equality is achieved with a common approach and vision, and if we talk about it, we necessarily have to start from this assumption.
Gender equality. United Nations Goal No. 5
Gender equality is not just a fundamental human right (hence for everyone), but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. Some progress has been made in recent decades, but not the kind hoped for by the United Nations for complete equality to be achieved by the near future of 2030. In many areas of interest, in fact, the entire global community is lagging: such as unpaid care and domestic work, decision-making in sexual and reproductive health matters. Women's health services, already underfunded, have suffered severe disruptions. Violence against women remains endemic.
Commitment and courageous actions are needed to accelerate progress, also through the promotion of laws, policies, budgets, and institutions that favor gender equality. Because countries that leave women behind also have the greatest public and social order problems and are among the poorest and most violent (Economist). It is essential to invest more in gender statistics, as currently less than half of the necessary data is available to monitor Goal No. 5.
Gender equality and Italy
Returning to this topic and reflecting on Italian society, what can we conclude? In many aspects, a country that has been home to great artists who have driven change and the cradle of the civil society we know today, seems to be impervious to cultural changes that concern gender models throughout the West.
Italy does not have a specific public policy for women, and in particular, it does not have a policy that favors women's work. Our country is last in Europe in all research on sexism, and in the percentages of female labor. The World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index 2023 places us globally at 79th out of 146 countries, and 104th in the "Participation and Economic Opportunities" dimension. It seems that a strategic plan on the female figure that also includes UN themes has not entered our DNA.
The lack of a focus on gender equality at a general level creates a minefield in a country where, more than a problem, sexism - called by other names that enhance its positive side - is considered a characterizing element of our culture. The Italian male. The Italian mother. The fiery Italian lover. The beautiful Italian woman.
Our cinema and our literature are full of these elements, which are also reflected in overseas cinema. Our everyday language, television talk shows (as we write this article, yet another case involving a well-known Undersecretary has erupted), and friendly chats are all full of it. Sadly, our heads and our perception of ourselves and others are full of it. Advertising that is produced by the agencies at the heart of these recent scandals is also full of it. It is of little use to invoke that these agencies produce communication that promotes the responsibility of client companies, because these operations are a duty on the part of multinational clients, and the agencies merely execute objectives that mostly come from abroad.
As social psychologist Chiara Volpato explains, individuals should, first and foremost, "pay more attention to everyday sexism that goes unnoticed". In fact, we are all responsible, women and men, for small and large omissions of help, reports, behaviors and daily decisions that, if taken, could change the lives of many women. But it is also necessary to be determined in recognizing that women's issues in Italy is a problem and that defeating sexism should not only be a fundamental objective of any government just like it should be part of the objectives of any manager.
The relationship with clients
The other side of the coin in the communication sector will then be the clients. The question everyone is asking is "what will they do?". Will they be able to follow their own internal policies? Multinationals and large companies require and produce pages and pages of sustainability reports (and social sustainability, let's remember, also includes people management) to demonstrate how they follow so-called best practices. In the same way, the supply chain should be checked.
Unfortunately, this often doesn't happen. An example of this is Sony Italy's sponsorship (announced on Twitter) of #Theborderline, which is certainly not in line – if attention had been paid – with the sustainability objectives of the international group.
Unhealthy work environments
As has been widely noted these days about the toxic and unhealthy culture of some workplaces, sexism goes hand in hand with excessive working hours, with ruthless internal competition, with the pressure and stress that result from this, with the lack of flexibility that women pay more, with hierarchical power structures where the boss (man or woman) can literally make their employees' lives hell. Sexism is almost always more common in problematic workplaces and harbingers of anxiety, depression, burnout, and other disorders. A toxic work environment forces people into selfish behavior and at the same time offers fertile ground to vent their instincts. All these elements make up a systemic structure that is as chilling as it is functional to achieve goals of exaggerated productivity (at least in the short term).
Perhaps some simple considerations of organizational theory could be of help. The Agency, or any work environment, is first and foremost made of employees, of people who spend time in that place, of freelancers who are involved. We must not fall into the rhetoric of the "family", which leads to a dynamic of guilt, but it must be a place for the expression of the working self, for the recognition of the other from oneself, of the other as such in its uniqueness and since the agency is also – and above all – a workplace, uniqueness must channel their energies into the best result for the Client. Consider that working should not be perceived as a cage or a prison. We must work in a fair and efficient way. It is not a prison. It should not be.
Let's also dwell on the concept of femvertising, a term that was born in 2014, during a debate at Adweek in New York, moderated by Samatha Skey, CEO of the digital media company SHEmedia. A word that is the union of feminism and advertising. Is it still really necessary and important to challenge gender norms in communication?
The data tells us yes. According to the research of the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) – which is responsible for showing how women are represented by the media – it emerged in 2020 that only 25% of the people talked about in newspapers, television or radio are women. The research also shows how this relative invisibility of women in traditional media has extended to digital media. In 2020, the overall presence of women as subjects and sources of news in digital media – the Internet, Twitter – is only 28%.
Moreover, women appear as few times in positions of power as men do. They are less often presented with full names and titles compared to men. As highlighted by the GMMP, it is more likely that traditional media will discuss women in relation to topics such as unemployment, underpaid work, informal work or by associating them with beauty and fashion content. Therefore, yes, there is still a need to dismantle cultural clichés and gender stereotypes in media narratives.
Advertising ante litteram
If we fail in this, we will come to a situation of anger and frustration that can only get worse, this has always been exemplified - we have not invented anything, today in 2023 - also by narratives, fairy tales, paintings and stories of a strong and continuous malaise that permeates the West, we cite here (and what we could define as advertising before its time) only Judith beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1620), Turandot in the fairy tale by Carlo Gozzi (1762) or Salomé described by Oscar Wilde (1891). Where we find "castrating" women (from the Latin castrāre "castrate", a word also related to the Sanskrit çastrám, "knife") who behead men.
To make a significant impact, women need to band together and unite with those who support them. The case of the advertising #metoo saddens us because it is not exclusive to Milan, it represents a snapshot of our country. Many men have expressed solidarity with the affected women and have condemned sexist behavior. Male participation is fundamental, but so too must be the participation of women in top positions. Masculine historical models must first be rejected by those who do not reflect them, and there are many. The expression of power through behaviors that violate human dignity and are degrading are not worthy of a modern country.
Teaming up means, first of all, that if a woman says "no" to improper behavior, she knows she has a support network that will prevent that "no" from damaging her professionally. It also means being able to count on adequate corporate tools. Building a culture that rewards courage and punishes abuse is the best prevention tool.
We all have to do our part every day in the different roles we hold at work, in the family, and in social life. We should not deny the existence of the problem nor claim that women have achieved everything. Instead, we need to acknowledge what has happened in order to make steps forward in the right direction.
Rossella Rosciano is the Managing Director of MiRò Comunicazione and an adjunct professor at the University of Pavia. She is also a board member of GWPR (Global Women in Public Relations) Italy with her colleague. She has a degree in philosophy from the University of Pavia and a Master's degree in Digital Communication.
Germana Barba is a consultant in Public Affairs, Lobbying and Advocacy and an adjunct professor at the University of Pavia. She is the founder of Women in Action and co-founder of Public Affairs & Careers. She is on the board of GWPR (Global Women in Public Relations) Italy. She has a degree in International and Diplomatic Sciences, a Master's in International Relations and a Master's in European Affairs from the London School of Economics and Political Science.