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Sheryl Sandberg: We Can Change the Face of Leadership Through Advertising

She spoke about the problem of perpetuated gender stereotypes at the World Economic Forum this week.


The solution to gender inequality begins with brands, said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Bloomberg / Contributor | Getty Images

On a panel at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Wednesday, Sandberg said that she doesn’t “think it’s possible to overstate how important stereotypes are” in reinforcing the gender gap. These stereotypes play out in advertising, which is designed to influence our desires and reflect the way we perceive the world.

Related: Sheryl Sandberg Commencement Speech, University of California at Berkeley, May 2016 (Transcript)

The Lean In author and foundation founder shared the stage with Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed. Unilever, the parent company of dozens of household brands such as Dove, stopped producing ads featuring gender stereotypes in 2016 upon determining that a mere 2 percent of all ads feature intelligent women, 3 percent show women in positions of power and 1 percent portray women with a sense of humor, Fortune reports.

On Wednesday, Unilever released a study titled “The Unstereotyped Mindset,” in which 60 percent of women and 49 percent of men reported that stereotypes personally impact their careers, personal lives or both. Seventy percent of respondents said they believe the world would be a better place if children were no longer exposed to gender stereotypes in the media and in marketing.

Sandberg also discussed the role of advertising in promoting stereotypes during a panel at New York Advertising Week in September -- alongside Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc S. Pritchard.

“One of our problems is that stereotypically, we don’t expect women to lead,” Sandberg said during Adweek panel. Pritchard shared an ad for Indian laundry detergent brand Ariel, owned by P&G, which depicts a young father assisting with household chores. “That ad,” Sandberg said, “does more to communicate why stereotypes are holding women back and men back than almost anything we can do.”

Related: Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In 2.0 and Corporate Gender Bias

Men and women alike don’t perceive women as leaders. In its study, Unilever found that 77 percent of men and 55 percent of women believe that a man is the best choice to lead a high-stakes project.

By altering the messaging around the roles and behaviors of women -- essentially, describing girls as having “executive leadership skills” instead of being bossy, as Sandberg suggested at WEF -- brands have the power to level the playing field for men and women and make everyone more successful.

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