We’re Better Than Stereotypes: SXSW Recap

by Sarah Hoffman

What’s the secret to overcoming stereotypes in entertainment, advertising, tech and publishing? There isn’t one. Stereotypes are rooted, complex and pervasive. Gender identity in particular is deeply affected by stereotypes. If you don’t fit neatly into traditional male or female roles, then you are frequently challenged with finding the right words to use, and you may be confronted with difficult or uncomfortable choices for things as simple as which bathroom to use. But there are steps we can take to make progress—steps we must take. As an industry, we can do better.

That’s why during this year’s SXSW, T3 launched The Pronoun Project, a call to action for fellow marketers to join in taking a pledge to explore how we can create ads, designs and experiences that better represent gender identity and personal expression.

We also hosted two panel discussions during SXSW. One was moderated by yours truly at Austin’s Capital Factory. We called it Better Than Stereotypes, and it included Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Executive Editor of Teen Vogue, Jordan Guggenheim, Lead iOS Developer at OkCupid, and Jacob Tobia, Author, Influencer and Activist.

During the discussion, the panelists gave us their thoughts on why stereotypes are harmful, why we’ve been so slow to adapt, and how we can move forward. They also offered several tips on how we as an industry and as individuals can make progress.  

  1. Hire more talent. All the panelists talked about this. If you can affect the types of talent that are hired at your company, try to couch new hires in terms of creativity. Diversity and different perspectives will help the agency be more creative, challenge the status quo, and think differently.
  2. Share experiences with colleagues. Create some kind of shared experience with co-workers and leadership where you can both see something. Send them an article, a clip of a news event, or a video. By doing this you can make the case with examples that stereotypes are harmful, and that can put the onus on them to do the right thing.
  3. Advocate. If you are the subject of stereotypes, finding an advocate can help. As Jacob Tobia said, “When you’re doing the messy, difficult work, don’t go in alone. Find someone to be your agent. Let them go to bat for you. Recruit them to help you and do the work for you.” And if you can be an advocate for someone else in your organization, it can be a great way to get involved and lend support. This can take the form of education on trans awareness or being aware of specific situations that might need extra attention.
  4. Be an ally. If you can’t be an active advocate, then you can be an ally inside your organization. Discover and disseminate resources to help yourself and others think differently about these issues. You don’t have to be gender ambiguous to get involved, and don’t be afraid of getting involved in the gender ambiguous community if you are a cisgendered white male. You can raise a hand or your voice. “I hope that people in tech can look to examples like this to enact change and go to bat for people in their own companies,” said OKCupid’s Jordan Guggenheim.
  5. Manage up. One of the more nuanced ideas to come out of the discussion was also one of the most important ones. Sumita Mukhopadhyay of Teen Vogue talked about how it’s possible to give people the tools they need to change stereotypes by changing company values and standards. “We’re working on a ‘sensitivity manual’ so all our journalists know how to talk about gender non conforming individuals, indigenous people, or sexual assault survivors,” she said. By implementing new and clear standards, the conversation then becomes part of the principles of the company rather than a political agenda.  

The bottom line is that there are people out there like our panelists who believe there are different ways of doing things, and there are people who want to be an ally for this change on one way or another. As an industry, we owe it to our clients to get involved as well. We can and must do better.

Sarah Hoffman

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