Unthinking censorship is not the way forward for gender equality

Kate Andrews
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Adverts that promote harmful gender stereotypes will be banned (Source: Getty)

Every year, I travel to a handful of schools around the country to take part in the Institute of Economic Affairs’ sixth-form conference programme.

I’m often speaking on the alleged “gender pay gap”, and concepts of masculinity, femininity, and stereotyping are at the forefront of discussion.

The bulk of evidence around the wage gap shows that the majority of men and the majority of women choose different career paths relatively early on in life, contributing to pay disparity over the years.

Read more: DEBATE: Should toy advertising avoid gender stereotypes this Christmas?

The goal from a public policy perspective is to recognise and account for the free choices men and women make, while resisting the urge to stereotype individuals into traditional roles.

The intricacies of this debate are usually grasped and understood by the A-level economic students I speak to – especially the girls, who often seem relieved to be told something about their future that’s more empowering than the victimhood industry would have them believe.

It’s the full-grown adults, the likes of whom sit on the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), who aren’t being remotely thoughtful about this debate, and plan to use the blunt tools of censorship and bans to bring it to an end.

Come spring 2018, the CAP will issue new rules to ban adverts that promote harmful gender stereotypes.

What is deemed “harmful”? This is where the censorious rulemakers reveal not only their biases, but also their ineptitude at judging creative content.

Ads touted as examples of what could be banned include Asda’s 2012 Christmas advert, which stars a busy mum preparing for Christmas, and an Aptamil advert illustrating a baby girl as a grown ballerina and a baby boy as a grown man doing something vaguely mathematical.

It’s near impossible to see what is “harmful” about the Asda ad – we have no idea if the mum stays at home or has a full-time job (and who are the CAP to make a judgement call on that anyway?). We have no reason to believe she is subservient to her husband (if anything, she dishes out the orders). It’s an ad designed to appeal to women who contribute to their family’s Christmas traditions. There is nothing sinister about it.

One might say the Aptamil ad should have depicted the baby girl growing into a less traditionally feminine occupation, but is the depiction of a spectacular and graceful athlete “harmful”? To suggest so exposes an extreme of sensitivity on the part of the offended, which should not be pandered to through an outright ban.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which polices the rules, also plans to take a “stronger line” on ads that “could be seen to objectify or degrade women”. A perfume ad featuring a naked Cara Delavigne is being used as the example of what might cross the line, which begs the question: should the international supermodel get to determine what demeans or empowers her body, or should the ASA?

While there is an important role for regulatory bodies to play in protecting vulnerable women from exploitation and coercion, this crackdown reeks of prudish disposition, which may very well do more to harm women’s sexual liberation than protect it.

Attacks on advertising are often veiled attacks on free speech.

Yes, a corporation’s motive for promoting their product matters less to most of us than an individual’s motive for voicing their political or religious beliefs; and as such, we rightly concentrate our efforts on protecting the latter group and their rights to expression.

But such protectionist measures, regardless of who they’re aimed at, cannot be tolerated in a free and liberal society. We are all aware – especially women – that we no longer live in the age of Mad Men. The CAP and the ASA should stick to policing the facts, and keep their own personal and puritanical opinions to themselves.

Read more: Bank of England plans to remove "gendered language" from banking regulation

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