Surekha Ragavan
Sep 17, 2020

The great sacrifice: Why are women made to choose between family and career in ads?

Women can certainly have it all, but not without a hefty dose of guilt, fear and self-loathing.

The great sacrifice: Why are women made to choose between family and career in ads?

A woman gets dressed for work. Her small daughter cries and she rushes to the kitchen to tend to her. She sorts out her daughter’s breakfast and gets her ready for daycare while lamenting the arduous juggle between her child and her career. This scene—played over and over again in varying scenarios—has become something of a trope in ads featuring mothers.

A recent report by R3 and Singapore NGO Aware on gender representation in Singapore advertising, found that the multi-faceted roles, responsibilities, and ambitions of women still go unacknowledged. Many brands continue to show women in singular roles of mother, wife, and caregiver despite Statistics Singapore figures pointing to 61.1% of Singapore women being employed in 2019, up from 60.2% the previous year. The report called this “a missed opportunity” for brands to set themselves apart by portraying women in environments outside of the home.

Kelly Leow, communications manager at Aware, said that the study with R3 involved an observation of 200 ads between 2018 and 2020. From that sample size, it was found that even with ads that featured working women in a positive light, an underlying theme of sacrifice was apparent.

In this Singtel ad featuring Shaza Ishak, owner of an ethnic minority theatre company, Ishak is shown to talk about her “time spent away from family” because of her job. In Apple’s emotional ad (below) featuring a cab driver and single mother who brings her daughter along on rides, she is chastised by her own mother as well as passengers for bringing her young child along to work, and this sacrifice becomes a running theme in the film.

“There's nothing inherently wrong with recognising the sacrifices a person has to make in order to excel in a field," says Leow. "One could argue that acknowledging these sacrifices only serves to underscore the accomplishments of these women—and that would be unrealistic given the gendered barriers that most women face, to imply that success came easy to them."

However, the issue is that working men are not given the same treatment in advertising or other media forms. "Our sense is that men's careers are usually portrayed as their primary commitment, the rightful object of their energies and time, not as something that they had to choose over other areas of life,” she says.

Leow adds that this trope of women having to choose between work or other areas of life is not a new one, nor is it the sole domain of advertising. Rather, it’s reflective of real-life injustices and constraints.

“We see it everywhere in our society, from pop culture to workplace policies and legislation," she says. "It stems from a traditionally gendered delegation of roles within a household. The man is automatically assigned the role of primary breadwinner, and the woman is automatically given the responsibilities of childcare and other unpaid domestic labour, whether or not she is also employed."

This idea plays out in myriad ways, Leow says, citing the fact that standard paternity leave is far shorter than maternity leave (and even when offered, not taken up as frequently by men); the persistent gender pay gap, which is partly due to women's need to work shorter and more flexible hours than their male counterparts in order to perform care; and the fact that female representation in Singapore's boards and government is still a fraction of male representation.

There are instances where the theme of sacrifice is used to good effect. In Vaseline’s beautifully filmed series about local heroes, a video profile of blade sharpener Lee Hwee Chin (below) shows her speaking about the physical hardships of her job without pandering to her straddle between career and family. This McDonald’s ad features women and men in varying roles who burn the midnight oil—and pleasantly, their genders don’t affect their career-related difficulties.

When Campaign Asia-Pacific reached out to multiple industry leaders earlier this year about which tropes around women they were tired of in ads, Liu Liu, former chief strategy officer at UM China said: “I’d like to stop celebrating women sacrificing in ads because it’s really just a way of guilting her into accepting the choices that other people are making for her.”

Liu's point brings up another theme often used in ads centred around women’s struggle: guilt. When a woman is presented with a career- or parental-related opportunity, she must only be seen as prideful and happy. In the case that she isn’t, she may be guilt-tripped or risk being deemed ‘ungrateful’.

Guilt-based advertising targeted at parents isn’t a novelty anymore, but a women being assumed as the primary caregiver means that her conscience and abilities as a mother are more often milked in ads for day-to-day kids’ products, such as milk or diapers.

Just take a look at the ad below for diaper brand Huggies. When a child cries because he’s wet himself, his mother is concerned and switches to a better diaper brand for her ‘peace of mind’. It’s a harmless piece of work, sure, but this ad formula of tapping into a mother’s psyche and making her subconsciously guilty about her ability as a parent is used over and over again in this way. This ad for Horlicks India uses a near-identical formula.

Venus Navalta, CEO of IPG Mediabrands Philippines, says that the matriarchal society in her country means that portraying women’s sacrifices in ads is a normalcy.

“In reality, Filipino women sacrifice a lot and are selfless (think of the millions of Filipino domestic workers taking care of children in foreign countries so they can feed their families back home) and some categories use this," Navalta says. "This theme is most pronounced in customised ads during Mother’s Day—when most brands remind the audience of the many sacrifices that they make for their families, and this is used a basis for honoring and expressing love for them.”

Phang Mei Jeng, general manager of Ensemble Worldwide, Malaysia, is hopeful that things are improving.

“Ads in the past are generally reflective of stereotypes, and this has been something perpetuated over generations across media," she says. "It was likely deemed a ‘safe’ approach."

However, in recent years lots of brands have started to understand that they need to be relevant with consumers. “This relevancy comes by portraying reality as a reflection of how society has progressed, and this includes the fact that there is no ‘typical’ woman; rather women’s needs, behaviours, actions and desires come in all shapes and forms," she says. "Brands that have understood this play a big role in reassuring women and getting them to step out of their comfort zones to achieve their dreams and desires. This resonates much better with millennial women and allows those brands to gain better traction.”

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