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It's Time to Talk About 'Progresswashing' and Women's Equality

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TBWA\New Zealand CEO Catherine Harris asks whether a tendency to celebrate minor progress is beginning to obscure how much work remains to be done

It's Time to Talk About 'Progresswashing' and Women's Equality

Is incremental progress being used to ignore and ‘wash’ over the work left to be done on women’s equality?

What has been increasingly clear is how some institutions are using incremental progress on gender equality to defer, minimise, ignore or outright silence the work left to be done for women. This is an even more stark reality for women of colour, and in particular Maori and Pasifika women.

In the workplace, the number of CEOs in our biggest companies, leadership representation and pay gaps all remain issues. Less than 30% of board directors are women in New Zealand, the gender pay gap data released today shows a gap of 10% for New Zealand women and a staggering 30% for Pasifika women and only 18% of angel investment in New Zealand goes to women, despite women owning one in three businesses. Articles this week continue to show us how the world of sport remains woefully behind in terms of investment, remuneration and pathways support. But we have a female Prime Minister, so what’s the problem?

This implies women shouldn’t demand equality, but should instead be grateful that some progress has been made. It minimises the space for conversation and reduces the attention we should put on ‘what else’ and ‘where next’ to achieve true gender equality for all women. This progresswashing has become the greatest hurdle for meaningful, statistically significant and timely change.

Several times recently I have been exposed to situations in my role leading an advertising agency, where ideas and stories have been stopped because powerful bodies want only to focus on the good news story. We have been told to hero the progress made and focus on the statistics that support this, instead of really interrogating if the progress made is enough or fast enough. I would argue that being incrementally better than some form of abysmal legacy, is not the time for us all to put our feet up.  

Recently, we have been overtly barred from honestly representing very real gaps in opportunity for young women because an organisation thinks this is too ‘negative’ and only wants to celebrate the incremental progress they’ve made. So we are in a situation where there remains gross inequality, but that inequality is censored to further the institution’s agenda. The debate has been silenced with an implication that choosing to focus on the issue, rather than the progress, is just down to “being negative” and a knee jerk desire to say, “that’s not us.” How dare we all not be thankful for all that’s been done so far…

The fight of the US women’s soccer team comes to mind. For so long we have seen a “shhhhhhh”… look, you have your own league. Why do you also want fair pay, investment, pathways, funding, recognition and coverage. Haven’t we given you enough already? Your opportunity was that you got one.

I am a big advocate for celebrating progress, providing hope and inspiring new pathways to change. We absolutely must include this as a pillar in our work. But that can’t come at the cost of accountability for gaps where we’ve failed to close them. We need to be comfortable, in all businesses and at all levels, acknowledging our work is not done. Progresswashing is a dangerous trend that will ultimately stunt progress and keep us from taking on the very real work left to be done. 

I do want to be clear this has not been at the hands of our network or our courageous clients, but was from powerful organisations who want to view the world through the baby steps they are taking and not through the barriers women face. This progresswashing has been felt and witnessed by the amazing women and men on our teams. 

Post International Women’s Day, while I want to acknowledge and shout from the rooftops about all of the tremendous success made towards gender equality both in New Zealand and abroad, I also want to acknowledge that these changes are hard to make. And what holds us back more than we realise is the narrative that we should be grateful for the progress made and celebrate what we have been given. That we’re ‘pushy’ or ‘ungrateful’ if we voice what still needs to be done. The stats don’t lie - gender equality has not been reached yet. 

Maybe amongst the celebrations of incredible female leadership, perseverance, courage and the amazing work many men do, we can also remain vigilant when we see progresswashing happening and look to challenge this.

So, to lead by example, I will acknowledge that we still have work to be done here in the business I am responsible for – TBWA\New Zealand. We have been unable to hire women fast enough into key disciplines, so our representation is still not where it must be. So if you are a female creative, strategist or business lead from New Zealand - or anywhere in the world - with an interest in having an adventure in Aotearoa at a brave and creative agency, we would love to talk.

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Categories: Social, Corporate, Social and PSAs

TBWA\New Zealand, Tue, 08 Mar 2022 22:32:11 GMT