International Women’s Day had its beginnings in the socialist movement over a century ago, however, today it is co-opted by businesses and brands around the world for both reputational and commercial purposes. In the last week I have been flooded with IWD themed marketing from fashion and beauty brands, booksellers and even cafes. Some have felt genuine, others have not.
On Sunday afternoon, a sponsored post arrived in my Facebook feed promoting an International Women’s Day event hosted by Canberra construction firm Geocon. It was to be held in partnership with online publication Her Canberra and hosted by media personality Kristen Henry.
Two things about this stock standard piece of advertising piqued my interest: that ‘an evening of women supporting women’ would be hosted by an organisation whose representation of women has been questioned on several occasions and that a prominent publication with a large female readership and a female public figure would support the event.
Geocon and Women
For those who may need a reminder, or perhaps were unaware of Geocon’s public relationship with women, here are a few highlights:
- In 2016 the firm celebrated the completion of construction of the highest point of the Wayfarer apartment building with a party featuring topless women serving drinks as entertainment. This came just four days after the company announced a three-year sponsorship deal with the ACT Meteors women’s cricket team.
- In 2017 a complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Board regarding a large billboard in Woden described in the Canberra Times as ‘picturing a woman in a leotard, dark sunglasses and stylised hair and make-up on a bicycle.’ At the time a Geocon spokeswoman defended the image as ‘in context’ and appropriate for the theme and venue. The complaint was dismissed.
- In June 2018 the ACT minister for women Yvette Berry condemned the use of sexualised imagery in the launch of Geocon’s apartment building High Society, saying ‘you might have all received an invitation … from this organisation Geocon who are a major developer in this town who have unnecessarily sexualised their invitation with an image of a woman to an event’.
- In October 2018 a second complaint was lodged with the Advertising Standards Board regarding advertising imagery for Geocon’s Tryst apartment building as suggesting ‘intimacy’ between women. The complaint was also dismissed.
- In February Geocon launched Envie, ‘a private oasis’ of ninety apartments in the Canberra CBD, with an exclusive VIP party featuring live snakes, a green champagne wall and the almost naked painted bodies of two women and one man.
Given that rap sheet, Geocon’s sudden interest in supporting women, right in time for International Women’s Day, did not come across as genuine to me.
In the heat of the moment (please forgive my misspelling of the word misogynist) I took a screenshot of the event, posted it to the Leiden insta-stories, tagging Geocon, and my personal Facebook. After much discussion with friends, family and readers (Geocon did not respond) I felt compelled to probe the matter further.
Women Supporting Women
Upon seeing my post on social media, the president of Canberra Women in Business Peta Swarbrick reached out to Her Canberra in a professional capacity (Her Canberra is a sponsor of Canberra Women in Business) and to Kristen Henry in a personal one, questioning their involvement in the event.
‘Canberra Women in Business is founded on three simple “pillars” or values. Our mission is to promote, grow and advocate for women in our community. Respect for ourselves, each other and all women is the core of these values,’ Peta told me.
‘CWB must be prepared to take the lead on issues like the blatant disrespect of women, through the sexualised images of women used to sell property development. If we are to be effective leaders and “walk the walk” we have to be prepared to speak up against disrespect.’
‘To have IWD used as forum for commercial companies with a track record of using blatantly sexist attitudes to sell “women positive” bona fides is an insult to the women of Canberra. Individuals and organisations with public profiles have a responsibility to be able to account for the messages they send by supporting brands that peddle disrespect for women to drive sales and profits. When one women is disrespected all women suffer.’
The response from both women (Kristen’s were available on her public Facebook page under visitor posts but have since been deleted, Amanda Whitley from Her Canberra’s letter to Peta was shared with me in confidence) although different in tone and content, had one thing in common: they each mentioned that the Geocon marketing team is made up almost entirely of women.
This justification again raises a number of red flags:
- Women are just as capable of misogynistic behaviour as men. As a company, Geocon has a reputation for sexualising women for commercial purposes. Whether this message has been instigated or shaped by men, women or a combination has little bearing, the message still stands.
- Many industries have a predominantly female workforce and yet are still exploitative of women. And these industries often involve the commodification of sex.
- A large proportion of women in a workforce does not necessarily equate to a large proportion of women in decision-making roles. A quick glance on the Geocon website indicates that the marketing director of Geocon is a woman and that she is the only female executive among thirteen males.
Perhaps the broader problem for Geocon is the disconnect between their demonstrated values as a company and those they wish to be seen engaging with. A party featuring topless women as entertainment as opposed to the sponsorship of a women’s cricket team. Or a party featuring two almost naked gold women and one man against an evening empowering women to learn more about their finances for International Women’s Day.
Both Her Canberra and Kristen Henry have likely decided to work alongside Geocon regarding this event for a number of reasons: an opportunity to engage with women on a significant day, the potential to empower women through an educative event and potentially for financial benefit. It is up to the clients, readers and supporters of each of these media organisations and women to decide whether or not they feel their involvement in the event is positive.
Geocon’s International Women’s Day Event
I had intended to attend Geocon’s event on Thursday night but my RSVP was unfortunately declined due to the event having already reached capacity. I was offered the opportunity to speak with someone from Geocon which I hope to take up in the coming weeks.
In lieu of attending the IWD event, I asked if the company would like to give comment on Geocon’s stance on women, particularly their portrayal in advertising and promotional events, the company’s approach to marking International Women’s Day and if the company has a plan for addressing its relationship with women going forward.
At the time of publishing I am yet to receive a response but I look forward to engaging with Geocon further.
What we can learn from Geocon
As spending power shifts into the socially conscious millennial demographic, brands are aligning themselves with both social and political causes to attract customers. While the rewards are potentially great for businesses who do this well (such as Nike and their Dream Crazier campaign) the impacts can be severe for those who do not (for example, a charity in the UK selling ‘girl power’ t-shirts that were found to be made by women working in exploitative conditions in a Bangladeshi factory).
Businesses seeking to take a stance on a social or political issue need to ask themselves three questions:
- does the stance come across as authentic to consumers i.e. does this political or social issue align with our own values as a business?
- will engagement with the cause drive social media?
- will it result in sales?
These can be difficult questions to ask but are nonetheless vital as consumers become better at identifying when a business is embracing a cause for genuine reasons as opposed to jumping on the bandwagon for reputational and financial gain.
Values play an integral role shaping a business’ identity and purpose. They form the foundation of an organisation from its very first day — from the first project undertaken, service offered or product sold.
Do we believe that empowering and supporting women has been a value of Geocon since 2007? The answer is no.
If empowering and supporting women had been a core value of the company since that time, would we have consistently seen sexualised images of women used in marketing campaigns, topless women as entertainers? The answer is no.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Geocon can’t change.
Organising an educational event that supports women is a step in the right direction, even if choosing to hold that event on International Women’s Day and so soon after the launch of Envie, may not sit well with many women.
While women are sexual beings with bodies that deserve to be celebrated, the notion that sex (as it has been traditionally defined through the male gaze) sells is no longer modern. Instead we crave inclusive, diverse and affirming marketing that lifts us up rather than keeps us in the box that we have been placed in for so long. The businesses that recognise this are thriving and not just in a financial sense. The question is, will Geocon join them?
A Note on Related Union Action
On Thursday 6 March, UnionsACT announced a snap action against Geocon’s sexism and exploitation of IWD to take place at the Geocon Tryst building site on the corner of Ainslie Ave and Cooyong Street, Braddon.
UnionsACT Women’s Committee convener and CPSU lead organiser Emma Turner had the following to say:
‘UnionsACT Women’s Committee decided to hold this snap protest to show that as feminists and unionists we will not stand for the objectification of women for corporate profit. We support the women entertainment workers but Geocon’s advertising is sexist.’
‘UnionsACT Women’s Committee aim to show the insulting irony of Geocon’s event for investors on IWD. They are exploiting the decades of hard work and very real struggles of working women for social capital. What’s more, these kind of objectifying images have a direct link to gendered violence, which one in three women suffer.’
‘Our Change the Rules for Working Women campaign makes obvious the huge pay gap for women, the disproportionate insecurity of our jobs, and the epidemic of family and domestic violence. Canberra’s expensive housing market is affecting women most harshly and leading to rocketing homelessness rates — if Geocon cared about women they would be providing affordable social housing and ending their sexist advertising.’