The Case for Responsibility of the Computing Industry to Promote Equal Presentation of Women and Men in Advertising Campaigns

Eva Turner


Although women account for over 53% of the UK workforce, there are still marked divisions between the types of work that women and men are associated with. For example, the lower levels of the service, and “caring” sectors are largely dominated by women, particularly where there is a significant percentage of part-time work available. Men tend to dominate the upper levels of most sectors, but, notably, all levels of technology sectors. The stereotypical characterization, then, is that women are associated with people-oriented work, whilst men are associated with technologically-oriented work. Leaving aside questions of how tenable this divide is, our focus here is upon such stereotypical associations, how these are played out in the advertising images deployed by the computing industry, and what affect this has on the industry as a whole, and women in particular.

Increasing computerisation of a wide variety of jobs means that more and more women are becoming proficient in using technology. However, whilst the stereotypical associations mentioned above are still dominant, this has two negative effects upon women’s working lives. As more and more work becomes mediated via computers, the ways in which the technology can handle the work becomes more important than the traditional practices that have developed in the workplace. This can have the effect of invalidating the kinds of knowledge women have been *allowed* to have, effectively deskilling them. Furthermore, if computers are continually associated with men, women’s interactions with computers will be confined to the “operator” level, preventing women from accessing the higher levels of the industry, where power is located and decisions are made. We argue that deploying stereotypical associations in computer industry advertisements maintains this situation, engendering a polarization where women remain proficient operators, but powerless recipients, of technology.

This paper gives a brief introduction to the feminist critique of advertising and the influence this has had on the advertising industry in general. This critique is then applied to advertising in computing. We show the results of a detailed study of three years of advertisements in Personal Computer World magazine. We compare many images of women and men in advertisements aimed at all sections of the population, from the home buyer aiming to buy her/his first machine, to the major industrial purchasers. The paper analyzes the pictorial representation of women in these advertisements, considering the messages conveyed about their qualities and abilities. In 25,000 pages we found very few images of women who may be considered technologically competent and knowledgeable. Depictions of women are mainly used for decorative purposes, including the pretty-faced, friendly voices on the other end of a helpline. By contrast, images of men are most often used as symbols of power, be they symbolic, as sportsmen, or real, as financially powerful decision makers. The second part of our research develops a detailed textual analysis of two particular advertisements. This shows how the relationship between text and image can either serve to mutually reinforce sexual stereotypes, leaving less space for reappropriation, or can convey a message that undermines an apparently positive image, causing a reversion to stereotypes.

Although this work relates entirely to presentations and constructions of gender, we also note that women and men of colour make-up an extremely small proportion of the images, and, of these, about half are grossly stereotypical, invoking colonialist discourse. The vast majority of computing advertisements leave us in no doubt that the white, Western, male is the buyer, but what is it, exactly, that he is being invited to buy? We argue that such images, and the stereotypes they deploy, have a negative impact upon the computing industry as a whole. The question then remains of what to do about this. Many industries prefer to be self-regulating, and the computing and advertising industries are no exceptions. However, over the last decade and a half, the European Union has commissioned various reports and passed various resolutions concerning the depictions of women and men in advertisements. The latest of these, from the summer of 1997, is based on MEP Marlene Lenz’s report, recommending the adoption of resolutions passed at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. Such political directives raise two particular problems: censorship, and international convergence.

The main problem with censorship, in respect to the debate here, is that it creates a situation where an industry is responding to sanctions which do nothing to address actual beliefs held. Censorship can have the effect of simply hiding institutional sexism, for example. Furthermore, where freedom of expression is stifled, freedom to critique, question and challenge is also stifled. In terms of international convergence, a particular issue for the member states of the European Union, the debate seems to revolve around the status of nudity, and the art/pornography divide in each country. This tends to focus the issue in a well-worn groove of xenophobia and prurience, playing into the polarized censorship debate, and ensuring that very little changes because the issue then becomes regarded as one of homogenizing national difference, which most member states resist.

Our concern is with the global computing industry. In terms of suggested Codes of Conduct, we feel the emphasis of debate is best placed upon exclusion, who is excluded and how are they excluded from being addressed by the industry? For example, in both gross and subtle depictions of women-as-objects, women are there for others, not for themselves. We see this as the crucial issue, in which claims and counterclaims about “decency” and “humor” are side issues which distract from this key point.

In conclusion, we argue that the responsibility falls to all of us involved in computing to acknowledge the power of media images, and to decide what kind of industry we want to be a part of. We also discuss the respective roles of legislation and industry guidelines, and what these mean for arbitration.