A poster ad for PeoplePerHour, seen on the London Underground in November 2019, featured an image of a woman and text that stated "YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE'LL DO THE SEO THING". Further text stated "Hire expert freelancers by the hour to help your business grow. With everything from coding to video editing, it's easy to see why over 2 million people have trusted PeoplePerHour to help build their dream business".
Nineteen complainants, who believed that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by depicting a woman running a business in a patronising way and by implying that women were not technologically skilled, challenged whether it breached the Code.
People Per Hour Ltd said the core intention of the campaign was to celebrate entrepreneurs and business owners, highlighting the fact they often walked a tightrope between driving their business forward and being weighed down by small day-to-day tasks.
The term “girl boss” was a reference to a book, popular culture movement and professional network. PeoplePerHour and their agency said they had not considered that the pairing of the term “girl boss” with the word “thing” could come across as patronising and reductive.
They acknowledged that the execution might unintentionally come across as sexist and demeaning to women. They had taken steps to rectify that by removing the word “girl” from the ad and issuing a public apology on their website. Global said that at the point of review, their Ad Copy team did not feel that the ad was likely to cause offence.
Having received the complaint, they carried out training with the team to ensure they considered wording, such as that in the ad, which could be misinterpreted or cause offence. They had informed their client that they would not run this particular ad going forward.
The CAP Code stated “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”. The joint CAP and BCAP “Advertising guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence” said that gender-stereotypical roles included occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender, while gender-stereotypical characteristics included attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender. It further stated that ads that directly contrast male and female stereotypical roles or characteristics need to be handled with care, and that care should be taken to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics were always uniquely associated with one gender.
The poster stated “You do the girl boss thing. We’ll do the SEO thing”. It was a well-established stereotype that men were more suited to positions of authority in the business world than women. We considered that using the gendered term “girl boss”, as opposed to just “boss”, implied that the gender of the person depicted was relevant to their performance in a managerial or entrepreneurial role. It was also likely to be interpreted as indicating that a female “boss” was an exception to the norm. Furthermore, in the context of “the girl boss thing”, use of the word “girl” to refer to an adult woman reinforced the impression that a female “boss” was a novelty, playing at their role and somehow less serious than a man in the same position. We acknowledged that the term “girl boss” made reference to a book and TV show about a female entrepreneur, and resulting use of that term more widely in popular culture. However, we considered that many people viewing the ad were unlikely to be familiar with that reference.
It was also a well-established stereotype that women were not skilled at using technology. In contrast with the gendered reference in the first part of the sentence, we considered that “We’ll do the SEO thing” (referring to search engine optimisation) was likely to be understood to mean that female “bosses” in particular needed outside help with IT matters. We acknowledged the steps taken to rectify those issues by removing the word “girl” from the ad and issuing an apology.
However, for the reasons given we concluded that the ad had the effect of reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes and that it breached the Code. The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 4.9 (Harm and Offence).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told People Per Hour Ltd to ensure their advertising did not perpetuate gender stereotypes in a harmful way.