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‘Knowing mothers’, inept fathers: Advertising clings to gender stereotypes

“Adverts increasingly position mothers as needing to acquire ever more expertise and skills to professionalise their mothering, but only represent them as using this knowledge for selfless maternal purpose.”

Jane Caro, a commentator and award-winning advertising writer, said gender stereotypes were deeply ingrained and “exceptionally hard to shift”.

Gender stereotypes in advertising often feature women as "knowing mothers" who deploy knowledge to cook, care and clean "correctly".

Gender stereotypes in advertising often feature women as “knowing mothers” who deploy knowledge to cook, care and clean “correctly”.

“We all want to believe in the all-loving, all-knowing, endlessly-nurturing mother we fantasised about having as a child and still wish we could have,” she said. “Even those of us unfortunate enough to be mothers ourselves and so constantly feeling bad for failing to live up to the impossible standards of the role.”

The use of knowledge for the family’s benefit was a common theme in advertisements for washing powder, vitamin supplements, tissues or disinfectant.

In contrast, men were portrayed as bumbling idiots in the rare instances when they were shown consuming products on behalf of their families.

“The typical ad shows the mother taking a rare night out, the father fumbling incompetently with dinner or entertaining the kids, then the ‘hero’ product helps to save the day,” Professor Davis said.

Although the study focused on women’s magazines, Professor Davis said similar stereotypes were used in television commercials for products such as Dettol hand sanitiser.

“The child is shown as being taught to use sanitiser by his mum who, ‘knowing how to consume right’, reaches out to protect her child even in the schoolyard,” she said.

She also pointed to a 2016 commercial for Finish, which showed a male “expert” showing a woman how to clean her dishwasher with the cleaning product.

Professor Davis said there had been a shift in the portrayal of women from consumers needing expert guidance – often from men – to exercising their own knowledge and expertise when buying on behalf of the family.

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But women’s knowledge was always used first to care for their families, she said.

Ms Caro said women were largely portrayed as servile to the needs of other people.

“We are still seen as essentially the servant gender and that our fulfillment comes from helping others to live large lives rather than living large lives ourselves,” she said.

Ms Caro said gender quotas to encourage women into advertising would lead to more originality and less stereotyping – a view echoed by Kiah Nicholas, an advertising creative with BMF creative agency and the creator of the Redefine Women campaign, which sought to remove sexism from millions of Google searches.

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Ms Nicholas said men dominated the advertising industry and had not seen the problem with gender stereotypes: “How could they?”

“To this day only 12 per cent of creative directors are women,” she said. “And that’s a problem. If women aren’t at the table, how can they make decisions about how they should be portrayed in ads?”

Ms Nicholas said Australia should follow the lead of Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, which banned two adverts last year for breaching rules on harmful gender stereotypes.

“The ban is incredibly effective and hope something similar will be implemented here,” she said. “If all we ever see is ads of dads who work and are incapable of changing diapers and women who run the home and are incapable of parking, that’s all we’ll ever be.”

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