Catalyst

The story of the male copywriter — as much sinned against, as sinning?

Saundarya Rajesh | Updated on April 17, 2020 Published on April 17, 2020

The year was 1971. The hotshot airlines, National (later acquired by Pan-Am), was a prestigious account for the ad agency. One of the agency’s top copywriters was assigned to National.

The first ad itself was bold. It showed an air hostess (real) named Cheryl. The headline was simple. It said, “I am Cheryl. Fly me.” The rabidly sexist ad made it past the creative director, the account supervisor, the account director and on the client side – the product manager, the chief marketing officer and even the Sales Director to become a long-running campaign featuring several, real, air hostesses.

Even a protest by NOW (National Organization for Women) did little to diminish its glory. It went on to win awards for having driven maximum sales. When the winning copywriter walked up to the stage, there was a collective gasp from the audience – the copywriter was a girl!

The year is 2020. Today, Covid-19 has descended upon us and multi-various challenges are manifesting in its wake. One among them is the excruciating problem of domestic violence. 95 per cent of the perpetrators are adult men. The pressure-cooker environ, lack of psychiatric support (as also lack of access to alcohol) is creating an unprecedented volume of calls to abuse counselling centres.

An NGO joined hands with an industry body and decided to do something about it. They came out with an Ad that urges men to wash dishes, cook and, among other things, “Beat the virus to pulp, not your wife”. Social media platform Twitter went all agog with statements such as “This must be written by a bachelor male” and “How insensitive & callous he must be to have even thought of such words”. And then, it turned out that the copy was written by, you guessed it – a woman.

Stereotyping

Often times, when we counsel organisations to develop a diverse and inclusive mindset, we find that women seem to have a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to stereotyping. Sandhya, who works as a designer for a leading brand, has this to say: “I am likely to believe that a woman is more empathetic, less biased and more inclusive, simply because she is at the receiving end of these things far more than a male”. Roomi, a project manager at an IT solutions company, opines, “I will ask both men and women for their views about a project allocation, but am likely to believe that the men will be more judgemental”.

Not only are men at the receiving end of unfair assumptions, they also seem to err on the side of caution. Says Chandru, a copywriter, “If there’s a creative that seems slightly risqué, I will do the safest thing – ask a woman colleague if it’s vulgar. After all, if she says it’s not, then it can’t be, right?”

Need for De-biasing

Presumptions such as these necessitate sessions on De-biasing. And on the difference between identity diversity & cognitive diversity. Because, even though women are (and quantitative research says this, not guesswork) definitely subject to greater stereotyping than men, they are by no means genetically wired to be bias-free.

Biases are of two varieties – the conscious and unconscious. In case of biases of the latter kind, the individual demonstrates what is referred to as unconscious incompetence – the act of not only holding prejudiced beliefs or attitudes but, more importantly, being unaware that she is afflicted with them. Biases are both learnt and assimilated. You will cultivate them over years, without even realising that they are deeply embedded in your belief system. You also inherit biases. They are almost impossible to notice and you might even be rightfully angered if questioned. Believing that a woman is any less biased than a man is a bias too!

Reflect and Learn

 

Several biases manifest themselves in such innocent, non-malicious ways that one doesn’t stop to think that they are very detrimental to one’s own progress and that of the cause that you represent. Intentional bias-busting is the need of the hour. Identifying use cases by industry, by profession, by level, allows us to reflect upon the scenario and add to one’s learning. And via this process, from unconscious incompetence, you move to conscious competence.

Do ask your mentor/HR lead/Diversity champion to sponsor some Unconscious Bias webinars for you, to productively use the time saved from commuting, during these days of Covid-19. And once you demystify what your specific cognitive biases are, you are more balanced in your judgement. So that, the next time you read copy that speaks flippantly about a problem concerning a woman majority, you don’t automatically jump to thinking that it could have only been written by a male copywriter.

Saundarya Rajesh is founder of Avtar, which provides solutions in Diversity & Inclusion. She can be reached at sr@avtarcc.com

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Published on April 17, 2020
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