The Path to Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Viacom and #SeeHer reflect on the campaign to change perceptions of women in advertising and media
Jul 12, 2017 10:45 AM ET

By V Staff

Exactly one year ago, a challenge was made. Supported by the White House, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and its Alliance for Family Entertainment (AFE) set out to lead a movement that would accurately portray women and girls in media so that by the year 2020 – the 100-year anniversary of a woman’s right to vote in the U.S. – they would see themselves reflected as they truly are. In doing so, the #SeeHer movement was created. Led by Gail Tifford (Unilever’s VP of Media and Digital Engagement) and Shelley Zalis (CEO of The Female Quotient), the movement caused a ripple effect in the industry as companies and brands started to reassess how and what they were saying to and about women and the unconscious bias that existed.

Click here to learn more about #SeeHer

During the 12 months since its inception and launch, change has been felt including a new rating metric for gender stereotypes in movies and television and the formation of the Unstereotype Alliance by the United Nations. But how far have we come, and how much further do we still need to go? In a panel discussion, ANA-AFE and Viacom brought together Olivia Morgan (VP of Strategic Programs for Common Sense, the nation’s top organization rating, educating and advocating for kids around media), Marva Smalls (EVP of Public Affairs and Chief of Staff for the Nickelodeon Group, and EVP of Global Inclusion Strategy for Viacom), Debi Mazar (Younger star, and a longtime advocate for women’s and LGBT rights), and Jacqueline Parkes (EVP of Marketing and Creative for MTV, VH-1 and Logo) to talk about the road to change and what we’ve learned along the way.

Unconscious Bias Isn’t Just a Women’s Issue

Bias in advertising and media and its impact on children isn’t just about little girls having great female role models—it’s also about little boys and the perceptions they draw about themselves based on what they see. According to Morgan and research conducted by Common Sense, the overwhelming majority of parents want companies to do more and are seeking more positive reinforcement for all children, no matter what their gender:

  • 80 percent of parents were seeking out content that had positive gender role models
  • 90 percent believe media impacts kids in terms of gender and how they see themselves and how they see the world
  • 75 percent were concerned about violence against women and girls in media
  • 60 percent were concerned about boys being shown as aggressively violent

“We really want to drill down to how gender portrayals in media impact kids at each stage of development,” she explains.

Diversity is a Dividend

When it comes to the workplace, battling unconscious bias is an ongoing process, and even as companies like Viacom are taking the extra steps necessary to ensure that diversity is a top priority, there’s still more work to be done. “We clearly understand that diverse teams are more productive,” says Smalls. “Homogenized teams yield homogenized results, and companies that are more diverse gender-wise have a 15 percent higher productivity rate.” But for diversity to be successful, the ongoing challenge is to ensure that the C-suite is taking the lead and cascading its efforts downward. Translation: You can ensure new hiring practices include an equal amount of female, ethnically diverse, and LGBT candidates, but it’s a moot point if executive leadership isn’t following suit. Equal attention needs to be paid to fostering a culture of inclusion as well.

Gender vs. Generational Bias

As companies aggressively work to diversify their workforce, they also need to be aware that generational biases exist, and that making sweeping assumptions about the wants and needs of different age brackets could be harmful. Parkes uses millennials as an example. “Passion is driving what they do along with culture. This generation wants more than just a paycheck. Being fulfilled is the most important thing.”

Unconsciously Holding Ourselves Back

Perceptions are all around us, but they start with our own internalization of them. They can be as simple as gender bias in color (prior to the 1940s, pink was associated with baby boys and blue with baby girls), or as complex as how we perceive ourselves. According to Mazar, women need to not only challenge society’s biases, but also the biases they hold within themselves. “I realized I had to be strong in Hollywood,” she asserts. “For me, I often read a great role that’s male-driven, and I’ll be like, ‘Why can’t I play that?’ And so I pitch myself.”

In examining these four areas, though the finish line is not yet in sight, the work that’s being done is proving fruitful: The ANA’s Gender Equality Measure (GEM) module has been used to help evaluate 20,000 ads since #SeeHer launched in 2016.

“The #SeeHer campaign has been a tremendous validator and boost to much of the work we have in place,” says Smalls. “But it’s also served as a catalyst beyond the footprint of where we are. When you have a General Mills saying don’t come to the RFP process without 50 percent gender and 20 percent ethnicity on your team, it matters. Or when you have the men that run brands saying, ‘Wow, I need to think about this differently,’ [it really shows] we have people that see the true added value.”

About Viacom

Viacom is home to premier global media brands that create compelling television programs, motion pictures, short-form content, apps, games, consumer products, social media experiences, and other entertainment content for audiences in more than 180 countries. Viacom's media networks, including Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, Spike, BET, CMT, TV Land, Nick at Nite, Nick Jr., Logo, Nicktoons, TeenNick, Channel 5 (UK), Telefe (Argentina) and Paramount Channel, reach over 3.9 billion cumulative television subscribers worldwide. Paramount Pictures is a major global producer and distributor of filmed entertainment.

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