I’ve just started another run of my Consciously Inclusive Leadership Programme, working with the leadership team of a small brewery who are growing rapidly and want to make sure their inclusive ethos continues as the company grows.

One of the discussion topics in the 3 month long programme is “How might unconscious bias show up in the work place?” We usually talk about missing groups and missing voices as well as things you might see and hear. However, there are other ways bias (unconscious or otherwise – sometimes it’s hard to know) can show up. This week the UK Government provided the perfect example in the form of a “Stay-at-home” advert.

If you haven’t already seen the stories about this advert (it was subsequently withdrawn) look closely at what is going on inside the houses. In 3 out of 4 there are women doing housework or childcare. The only adult man in the graphic is pictured relaxing on the sofa – presumably watching TV or similar. Whilst it is true that in many homes the additional burdens related to home schooling and housework have fallen disproportionately on women, as reported by the UN, and  closer to home,  the balance in these adverts perpetuates existing stereotypes about gender roles – to the detriment of men and women.

There are many questions to ask about how this graphic came about, and what it signifies. What is clear is that there is some form of bias (unconscious or otherwise) possibly in multiple places. Additionally, and perhaps even more surprisingly for the advertising world (maybe less so for the government), it is clear that this advert is out of touch with a considerable part of its audience. As every advertising agency knows, that is not a good sign. Advertisements need to connect with their audience, especially when they want to change behaviour. Perhaps the government had done their research and demonstrated a strong correlation between people breaking lockdown rules and people with stronger held stereotypes in terms of gender roles – but I have seen no evidence from anywhere that either this correlation is true, or that work has been done. Put the fact that this advert got published together with the lack of women in the Conservative party in general, the known lived experience of many Conservative MPS of very gender stereotypical roles in their childhood or indeed their current domestic set ups, the rhetoric around lack of free school meals and the lack of support through the pandemic for self-employed (an increasing number of whom are women) and it’s hard to avoid thinking there is (at best) unconscious bias going on and possible conscious prejudice.

This is also a very public example of how things can go wrong very quickly. How easy would it have been to at least even up the genders (accepting that we might unfortunately be restricted to a binary view of gender) and show an adult man holding the bucket or doing the school work? A step further might have been to show a same-gender couple, or to make some of the figures suitably gender-ambiguous. Whilst we want to avoid the “one of everything” approach, what an opportunity missed to help the very varied households across the country recognise themselves and feel a tiny bit more belonging.

A (very) few people I have talked about this too have demonstrated responses such as “it’s only an advert”, “snowflake” and “do we have to check every single thing now”. Here is my message to them.

I’m afraid the answer is “yes”. This world needs all the talent and ingenuity we can get to solve the global problems we face. Limiting people’s opportunity to be heard and to be that talent is a problem for us all, therefore we all need to be part of the solution. Yes, you will have to give up some time and space if you are used to having it all. But the generations coming are going to start looking at you and wondering why you were so unfair to certain people. Is a little bit of trouble to practice putting on your diversity lenses and looking at things from that point of view really too much to do compared to having “Unfair” as your legacy?


Skip to content