International Women’s Day: how brands can avoid ‘faux feminism’

Thought Leadership

International Women’s Day is fast approaching. It’s become an increasingly important date in the corporate calendar, where businesses acknowledge the good work women bring to organisations, while presenting themselves as good corporate citizens as well as model employers.

But has International Women’s Day become more about words than action? Here, we look at what brands have been up to, who should get involved in the conversation, and how to get it right.

The rise of International Women’s Day in our cultural consciousness
Social conversations about IWD continue to rise, while searches for the term declined from 2018 to 2019, suggesting the public know what IWD is. There has been a 20% increase in conversations (297.3k in 2019 vs 244k in 2018 – unsurprisingly with almost all these conversations coming on the day of IWD or the day prior), while searches for the day peaked in 2018 at the height of the #MeToo movement. It’s safe to say the day has now gained cultural relevance with the public.

Google search terms for International Women’s Day for five years (global)

Online mentions of International Women’s Day from Jan 2018- March 2020 (global)

Online discussion highlighted particularly interesting topics of conversations around ‘feminist’ ‘celebration’ and ‘events’. Users discuss positive ways in which collective groups can impact the status quo, through sharing articles about other women’s positive impact or support groups to help lift each other into success.

Brands on International Women’s Day
So what have brands been up to?  One of my favourites in recent years was NotOnTheHighStreet, who in 2019 confirmed a three year deal with The Prince’s Trust to support and raise funds for the charity’s Women Supporting Women Initiative. 10% of sale proceeds from the collection of products including notebooks, pins, badges and statement t-shirts went to The Prince’s Trust. On top of this, NotOnTheHighStreet launched a mentor programme to support, nurture and inspire those within the charity to design their own thoughtful collections.

But not everyone gets it right. Last year Ann Summers changed its name WomAnn Summers to point out that it is female first and foremost, despite shop front images taken from the male gaze. While in 2017, a particularly stand out example from the kitchen roll producer Brawny saw the opportunity to reinforce gender stereotypes that a woman’s place is the kitchen while comparing all women to kitchen roll. #StrengthHasNoGender. Quite.

What’s in a name?
So what separates the good from the bad? A significant part of what goes wrong is the lack of investment and support systems in the equality, growth and endorsement of women all year round. Those who claim to do this, but without any real initiatives existing and/or contradictory real-life practices are guilty of faux feminism. 

A quick segue here, but bear with me as it’s a conversation worth having. You may not have heard of faux feminism before – that’s because there really isn’t a word to describe paying lip service to women on tokenist occasions like IWD, while neglecting them for the other 364 days of the year. For example, companies are accused of greenwashing when conveying false impressions or misleading information about a company’s products to make them sound more environmentally sound. And there is rainbow washing when companies add rainbow colours/imagery in order to indicate progressive support for LGBTQ+ equality but with minimum effort or pragmatic result.

The nearest we could find for it was fem-washing in the Urban Dictionary, but given its similarity to the likes of FemFresh, it’s not probably something that women want to be shouting about. We put it to our team – what should we call this practice: material feminism, pound-powered feminism, incidental feminism, faux feminism, fair-weathered feminism? The conclusion was overwhelmingly faux feminism.

Considerations when activating around IWD
So how can brands ensure that this isn’t just a date in the diary and they’re not guilty of faux feminism? Here are a few tips.

Actions speak louder than words
Businesses need to implement initiatives on the issues impacting women. This could include robust maternity (and paternity) policies, ensuring gender balance in the boardroom (as well as through other levels of the business), mentoring, putting in processes to ensure everyone has an opportunity to be heard, and more. At We Are Social, we take equal representation seriously and have maintained a well-balanced male/female split at senior management level over the last few years.

Think long-term 
Make sure your campaign isn’t just a flash in the pan and it links back to your long-term business strategy. Consider how you can keep the momentum going over the year (or years), internally, externally or both. Support organisations that do this every day – for example, Creative Equals is a fantastic scheme which promotes equality in the workplace, including helping women get back into the creative industry after taking time out to raise their children. Credibility is earned over a period of time, not by a one-off post. Be prepared for backlash if you’re not true to your word.

Sensitive but not patronising
If you do communicate, provide something of value. This can be fun, educational, equipping or offering a solution to a problem. Make sure you consider sensitivities and don’t fall into gender stereotypes or tropes. Not all women will need or appreciate everything – shock, we’re all different. It’s as important to be specific about the audience you’re targeting here as it is the solution you’re offering isn’t patronising. 

From the community
Empower people in your organisation who have a direct connection to the cause, and feel strongly about it. The most authentic content comes from within a community that is directly impacted. Allow women to speak for themselves and decide how they’d like to celebrate IWD, if at all. In this case, let women voice the challenges they face and assess if your brand can offer any pragmatic solutions.


This article was written by our Research & Insight Analyst, Rosie Pond