Sheryl Sandberg: Rethinking Marketing to Women

Marketers have the opportunity to speak to women in ways that debunk stereotypes

One Presidents’ Day, when my daughter was five, I was teaching her a song that includes the names of all the presidents. When we got to the end, she asked, “Mommy, why are they all boys?”

It’s no secret that there is a dearth of women in leadership positions. Women in the U.S. now earn 57 percent of all college degrees and 60 percent of graduate degrees. Yet the numbers on females in leadership roles are dismal. Women make up just 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 3 percent of creative directors and 18.5 percent of Congress. And it’s no wonder my daughter thought girls couldn’t be president—we’ve never seen one.

This needs to change. Men and women should be equally represented at the boardroom table and the kitchen table. To get there, we need to reform our institutional and governmental policies on everything from parental leave to flextime. We need affordable childcare. We need to encourage women to pursue their ambitions and negotiate for themselves along the way. And crucially, we need to address the stereotypes that lead us to call girls “bossy” and boys “leaders,” and then when they grow up, women “aggressive” and men “results-oriented.” Those stereotypes are deepened and sustained by the messages sent by the media to women and girls. Women control the vast majority of consumer spending in this country, yet when asked in a survey if advertisers understand them, 90 percent of women said no.

Young women easily see hundreds of advertisements a day. It’s not just that these messages often fail to sell products effectively. They also fail to empower or offer hope—and they diminish the aspirations of our daughters.

As industry influencers, we have the power to change these messages. Either we continue marketing in ways that perpetuate stereotypes or, instead, we can use messages that educate and empower. We can continue to accept images of women being sexualized and subjugated or replace them with images of women with agency and power. Marketing more effectively to women will improve the bottom line of our companies—and lead to greater equality in our society.

We are already seeing brands and advertisers who understand this and are achieving great success. In December, BBDO’s agency in the Philippines debuted an ad for Pantene shampoo that highlighted the double standard placed on working women: She’s “pushy” while he’s “persuasive.” She’s a “show-off” while he’s “smooth.” “Don’t let labels hold you back,” the ad says at the end. GoldieBlox, a small startup that makes engineering toys for girls, won a free ad slot during the Super Bowl after its video about girls building a Rube Goldberg-style machine went viral overnight.

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” produced by Ogilvy & Mather, became the most-watched online ad ever and went on to receive the top honor at Cannes Lions last year. Women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan—where I guest-edit a quarterly “Careers” section—have begun to satisfy the growing desire of female readers to feel empowered by running content that takes them seriously.

Image makers have joined the empowerment push, too. In February, LeanIn.Org teamed up with Getty Images on an initiative that really makes me proud: a curated photo library called the Lean In Collection that showcases powerful images of women, girls and families. The women are not posed in sexy business attire climbing ladders in stilettos. They are not carrying crying babies in briefcases or eating sad desk salads. They are working moms, military women and bosses, with real bodies, real families, raising real children. We also include photos of men in the home who have chosen to be primary caregivers. We update this library monthly, with a simple goal of providing alternatives for creative directors and brands that are looking for authentic storylines that depict real women.

Marketing to women in ways that are empowering isn’t just good for women—it makes economic sense. I’m glad to see Adweek doing its part to highlight this issue. This piece is the first in a series of columns about the importance of women’s representation in media. Published quarterly, the series will highlight the voices of women in media, marketing, advertising and communications.

The power to change the culture lies in all of our hands.

Sheryl Sandberg (@sherylsandberg) is COO of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.Org. She will moderate a panel at Cannes Lions about the power of imagery with Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles, Getty Images CEO Jonathan Klein and BBDO Worldwide CEO Andrew Robertson. Follow along at #repicturewomen and learn more at LeanIn.Org/Getty.

Illustration: Oliver Munday