Stop empowering women
Posted on January 04, 2019 | By Mona Elsayed

Gender equality has made great strides in MENA’s marketing, although J. Walter Thompson Gulf’s Regional Planning Director, Mona Elsayed, suggests there is scope to be even more progressive.

My name is Mona. And I am a woman. I am also a wife, daughter, sister, friend, IAA Young Professional and J. Walter Thompson Gulf’s Planning Director. My favourite role, however, is being the mother of one but soon-to-be mother of two headstrong little girls. Now, in some way, I am thought to be successful in my career and I would love to believe that everyone saw it the same way as I do: earning my degree and title through hard work and battling it out in an industry dominated by men. For many women, it is simply not the case. This brings me to a very critical discussion point and the main victim of this article: the word, ‘empower’. Specifically, Women Empowerment. I am sure many of you are familiar with the phrase, as it’s been a top-trending subject for advertising agencies everywhere, especially in the Middle East. Briefs have been piling up on my desk from client brands looking to get in on some of that ‘empowering’ action.

Just a few years ago, I held the idea of women empowerment by brands close to my heart because I believed it truly meant change, and that I could be a part of that somehow. The more I saw or even drove brand-initiated movements that empowered women, the more I was amazed; the more I felt honoured. Because, yes, I am as beautiful as Dove’s Real Beauty campaigns tell me I am. And my daughters will be as Fearless as State Street Global Advisors predict them to be.

“My name is Mona and I am a woman. I do not need to be empowered. This is where advertising goes wrong.”

But soon a swarm of brand bees arrived, all of them telling me that I deserved to ‘be empowered’. But my name is Mona and I am a woman and I had to understand what that really meant because I am in my office every day, writing creative briefs for brands wanting to empower women like me. Something just didn’t feel right. So I did what any curious mind would do: I googled it.

What does the word ‘empower’ actually mean?

Empower: give (someone) the authority or power to do something. To make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights. Set free. Give freedom to. Give. To give power to.

Suddenly, with this definition in mind, I reevaluated every brand’s women empowerment message. In an instant, I realised that in an industry where every word in every line or script can make or break people’s reactions and/or influence their behaviour, we had failed. 

My name is Mona and I am asking you to please stop ‘empowering’ women in the way that most brands do. I may have been the only woman on the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy judging panel that looked at Nissan’s #SheDrives in a slightly different light. I kept asking myself: instead of celebrating the idea of women driving with an ad depicting ‘acceptance’ from men, why didn’t Nissan make it a point to have its next car advertisement with a Saudi female in the driver’s seat? Now imagine that PR headline:

‘New Nissan Patrol ad gives Saudi women the driver’s seat’ or ‘Saudi women test new Nissan Maxima’.

That, to me, is the right kind of empowerment because you would be presenting a Saudi female as taking a seat that she always had the power to fight for. Driving with confidence. Testing with knowledge. No need for further acceptance. No need for victimised tears. Just owning the road like she can and always meant to.

In Puck’s latest women empowerment campaign, 'Cook with Her', it was lovely to see a brand sending out a message to men in the region. A message for change, pushing for more of a collective role from a couple and challenging the norm of showcasing the woman alone, in the kitchen, ‘where she belongs’. Now, think about the definition of ‘empower’ again and re-evaluate that first glance. Why couldn’t the next ad for Puck’s infamous cream cheese jar have launched with mum and dad already cooking together in the kitchen? With the message then being about the product and allowing the role of the couple preparing food together to be represented as something natural. PR headline? ‘Puck’s cream cheese jar breaks regional kitchen stereotypes’.

My request is simple: let’s really look into communication we adored in the past – and the briefs we are receiving today – and re-evaluate. Let’s ask ourselves, how exactly does this empower women?

We need to reimagine the future. To empower the right way, brands must know:

  1. Relevance: Be sure your product can own the gender problem you claim.
  2. Accountability: Be equipped to fix the gender issue you raise.
  3. Inclusivity: Celebrate progress in equality by portraying it as the norm.
  4. Reflection: She is not a freed victim of past suppression but an equal member of society.

My name is Mona and I am a woman. I do not need to be empowered. This is where advertising goes wrong. As communication experts, if we continue to segregate communication, then bridging the gap will take longer than ever. Fight to portray the ultimate vision; fight to paint the rightful picture in the eyes of consumers and then let nature take its course.

The sooner we react to women in equal roles in advertising as ‘normal’, the sooner it will become a norm and the same applies to everyday life at home, or even the workplace. Because history has shown that women won’t wait around, politely, to be empowered by anyone.


Courtesy of WARC’s MENA Strategy Report