There is an impression of unconscious bias, with images still reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes
What was your first ever experience of the financial services industry? I found myself thinking about this last week, after reading Technology & Technical managing director Kim North’s powerful Money Marketing column on gender inequality.
My own memory goes back to 1980. I opened the door at the nursing accommodation where I was living and let a young chap, no more than 20 years old, into the communal lounge. He spent the next 30 minutes trying to persuade me to buy an investment product, about which he probably knew even less than I did.
A few minutes into his presentation, I recognised the lad: he was on the periphery of our scooter club in Colchester and we called him Messy, after one of the Mr Men characters, because when he first turned up he was a bit dirty and smelly.
Long after Messy cleaned up and became more presentable, the name stuck sadly.
I do not remember the precise product or the company Messy represented.
I do, however, recall him using a script and showing me some graphs on a printed brochure, which he would hand to me and then take back into safekeeping, as if I could not be trusted to hold on to them.
Messy did not make a sale that day. After a while, we stopped talking finance and switched to his Lambretta GP200, about which he was far more knowledgeable.
Despite his lack of success, what still strikes me about Messy back then was his willingness to put himself in a position where he would knock on random doors (he hadn’t known I would be the one opening it that time) and his outwardly confident demeanour when talking to me. North’s column made me think: would a young woman ever have done something quite as bonkers as that? Somehow, I doubt it. Men, far more than women, are primed at an early age to be assertive, even when they haven’t got a clue. Women, in contrast, are socialised from childhood into different forms of behaviour and are generally more reflective and insightful as a result.
Financial marketing both reflects these roles and reinforces them. In her column, North writes about the need for greater diversity in the financial services industry, as well as the need for more gender-inclusive marketing.
She points out that marketing of financial products and services is heavily male-oriented, “with themes like jousting and shooting, and showing all-white male, ageing fund managers”.
She argues there is a need “to modernise UK financial services and shake off the white male dominance in marketing campaigns”.
I agree. For too long, much of the financial services marketing literature has been male-focused.
It is less overt today than it used to be: I still remember personal pension brochures from the 90s showing pictures of sleek silver-haired men at the wheel of old sports cars, complete with female spouse in the passenger seat.
Today’s imagery is subtler, although occasional howlers still creep in.
Witness the picture of the young, confident male adviser on the Barclays website, imparting the benefit of his knowledge and experience to the couple clutching hands on the sofa opposite him.
NatWest makes use of both females and members of ethnic minorities in its online marketing, although I was intrigued by the juxtaposition on the same webpage of two images.
One is of a father, in his 30s, helping his son climb a rocky outcrop in the countryside. The other is of a young black woman sitting on a sofa and trying on a pair of suede boots.
Elsewhere, a white mother is busy in the kitchen, showing her young son the contents of her food mixer, a tray of cakes in the foreground. And before anyone asks, I don’t think she is giving him a baking lesson.
Yes, there is a picture of a mother at the top of a mountain, with her child sitting at her side. But dad is sitting behind them, pointing at something in the distance, which they are looking at together. The mother and daughter’s role is passive (they look); his is active (he points).
I do think some of that is changing. Aviva’s marketing literature uses more naturalistic images in a gender-neutral way, while Scottish Widows’ Pensions Basics campaign uses as many women as men in its website FAQs.
But the overall impression is of an unconscious bias, with images still used to reinforce gender stereotypes of passive women and active men. North is right: it has to stop.
As for Messy, what happened to him? Well, he didn’t last long in the industry. A few months later, he found work in a large retail bakery chain and stayed there happily for many years.
When I spoke to him at a club reunion about 15 years back, he confessed to not having had a clue about what he was trying to sell me. Bless. And his name is not Messy any more; it’s Peter.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at email@example.com