The Women We See … and don’t see

Siobhán McKenna

By Siobhán McKenna, on February 14th, 2019

> Read Siobhán McKenna's articles

Last year marked the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act, extending to the right to vote for the first time to (some) women in the UK and Ireland (it would be another ten years until universal suffrage was introduced). To mark this anniversary, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, launched the year-long #BehindEveryGreatCity gender equality campaign to tackle gender inequality in the city.

While London is one of the most diverse and inclusive cities in the world (37% of us are from overseas) gender inequality remains an issue in the capital – particularly in the workplace. For example, the gender pay gap in London is the largest in the country with an average woman working full time earning 14.6 percent less an hour than the average man working the same hours. Between 1997 and 2017 this gender pay gap only improved by 0.5 percent, at that rate it will take 500 years to close! (ONS 2017)

This workplace inequality exists across London in the public, private and third sectors. Only 32 per cent of all MPs are women, only 36 per cent of councillors in London are women and only one in five chairs of third-sector boards is a woman. In business, there are only seven female FTSE CEO chairs in the UK and only 23 per cent of boardroom roles are held by women.

The Women We See

As part of the #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign, City Hall commissioned researchers from University College London (UCL) to study diversity and representation of women in the advertising industry in London.

They found that less than one in three women feel that adverts in London are relevant to them and highlighted the extent to which women from different cultural backgrounds, age groups or sexual orientation feel ignored.

Findings from the Women We See research:

    • Showed that 75 per cent of women feel that the adverts they see should reflect the diversity of the city’s population, yet only one in four thought the adverts are culturally diverse.


    • Highlighted that women and girls feel pressured to achieve a specific beauty standard because of the women they see in adverts around the city.


    • Outlined the feeling, by those involved, that the least represented were women over the age of 55. Just under one in four respondents could recall seeing an advert featuring someone with wrinkles, and older research participants reported feeling ‘invisible’ and ‘irrelevant’.


    • Showed those surveyed felt advertising was focused on able-bodied people, with just 18 per cent of survey participants able to remember ever seeing an advert featuring a disabled person. The majority of men and women also said they did not see enough images of disabled people.


    • Indicated that members of the LGBT+ community who were surveyed felt excluded, with only one in three feeling their sexual orientation was well represented.


    • Also indicated that respondents were critical about the use of Photoshop, with 42 per cent of women saying the use of Photoshop is unacceptable and 69 per cent saying they think companies need to be more transparent and state when Photoshop has been used in their adverts.


To address this lack of representation and diversity of women in advertisements in London, the Mayor launched the Women We See competition to support advertisers to create more positive and inclusive campaigns featuring women. Sponsored by the competition’s media partners, Exterion Media and JCDecaux, for the first time ever, this competition gave brands the opportunity to win £500,000-worth of prominent advertising space across the Transport for London network – one of the biggest advertising estates in the world, seen by people on the 31 million journeys taken on TfL’s network every day. There were nearly 100 submissions for the competition.

And the winner is ….

Health supplies store Holland and Barrett were the winners with an ad that tackles one of the last taboos for women: the menopause. Holland and Barrett’s ME.NO.PAUSE campaign will profile a diverse range of women going through the menopause. You can read more here and here.

#BehindEveryGreatCity gender equality campaign

The #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign worked across all policy areas last year to address the underrepresentation of women in London.

    • The statute of suffragist Millicent Fawcett installed in Parliament Square is the first statue of a woman in that public space.


    • Hidden Credits celebrated the achievements of woman who lived, worked or campaigned in London over the last century.


    • In May last year, the Mayor launched the Our Time – supporting future leaders programme, the campaign’s flagship policy to address the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in the Greater London Authority group.



    • In an effort to challenge gender inequality online (83 per cent of Wikipedia biographies are about men, and 85 per cent of page editors are men) the BEGC campaign and Wikipedia joined forces to host an ‘Edit-a-thon’ to create a surge of new pages about women online.



    • Art on the Underground tackled the underrepresentation of women in public art, and the year-long programme of exclusively female artists featured on the Underground sought to address this imbalance.


    • City Hall’s regeneration team, through the Good Growth By Design programme, are looking at diversity in the architecture profession and among built environment professionals and how it can be improved.


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