Is there a right way to celebrate women?

Mimco Laura Enever surferIn honour of International Women’s Day last week, many Australian retailers held one-day sales, shared inspirational social media messages and donated a portion of their sales to charities. But it wasn’t all ‘girl power’ emojis. 

A closer look at retailers’ initiatives reveals a fundamental uncertainty about their role in the women’s movement and the fine line between empowerment and exploitation of social causes. 

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Rebel Sport, The Iconic, Jeanswest and Katies were among those retailers offering discounts on their women’s range or storewide to show female customers a little appreciation on March 8. 

But while event-driven sales have become the new normal in retail, International Women’s Day does not lend itself to promotional activity as easily as Black Friday or Boxing Day. Consumers are quick to brand retailers’ participation as misguided attempts to turn the fight for gender equality into a ‘Hallmark holiday’ for material gain.  

In response to a story on Quartz about online retailers in China marketing International Women’s Day as “Queen’s Day” and “Goddess Day” to sell beauty and lingerie products, one Facebook user from the US commented that “the retailers that posted this [women’s day discounts] in my e-mail royally ticked me off.”

At the same time, new research from Deloitte shows customers are positively influenced by messages of equality when backed up by authentic action. Retailers naturally want to tap into that goodwill, but not everyone thinks promotions are the best way to do so.

Companies like Michael Hill, Cotton On, Country Road and Shoes of Prey paid tribute to International Women’s Day on social media, sharing inspirational stories about female leaders in their organisation and beyond, while avoiding any mention of products.

Others took it even further by partnering with organisations aimed at improving the lives of women around the world.

Walking the talk

Fashion retailer Mimco launched a special watch and charm on International Women’s Day, with all profits from the collection going to Our Watch, an Australian organisation committed to preventing domestic violence through education and cultural change. 

This marks the second year in a row Mimco has partnered with Our Watch on International Women’s Day, a decision driven as much by internal values as customer demand.     

“The day is such an important day of the year and it’s becoming more and more important to our customer and to us as a brand,” said Georgia Hack, Mimco’s head of marketing.

“We employ over 800 women across our store network, the majority of our customers are women and it’s really important to have that as a key focus of our communications.”

Indeed, after the once ubiquitous phrase ‘girl power’ seemed to go the way of the Spice Girls in the late 1990s, the topic of female empowerment has had something of a pop culture renaissance in recent years.

As more celebrities and politicians embrace the f-word – feminism – consumers and retailers are also getting behind the movement. And this is where things get complicated. While many retailers are genuine in their support of social causes, they risk the possibility of being perceived as simply jumping on the bandwagon for positive press and profit.

Mimco has largely avoided that trap, raising over $400,000 for Our Watch so far. Hack credits this success to the company’s commitment to “walking the talk” and embracing the same values it asks customers to adopt.

“We knew we couldn’t go out with the Our Watch campaign without supporting our teams and our staff who might be affected by domestic violence,” Hack said. As a result, Mimco now offers a counselling service to staff and allows employees to take leave for domestic violence reasons.

“We don’t just do it from a consumer facing point of view. It’s ingrained in our business. And it’s not just for one day. That’s the important thing,” she said.

Not just one day

For people like Jade Collins and Alanna Bastin-Byrne, International Women’s Day is just the high point of a much broader reaching campaign.

The sisters-in-law are the founders of Femeconomy, a website that aggregates retail companies, banks and other businesses with 50 per cent female ownership or 30 per cent female directorship. It aims to reduce gender inequality by getting customers to support more gender equal brands.

“A lot of consumers have lost faith and trust in large companies and I think at the end of the day, we’re part of a community. We think gender equality and being socially conscious is good for everyone,” Collins told IRW.

This sentiment can be seen in Priceline’s ‘100% Woman’ campaign and its sponsorship of women’s sport. It is also apparent in the #SheImagines project, which Vicinity Centres launched last week.

The internal project is an attempt to make the workplace more gender equal through the simple act of listening to women.

According to Simone Carroll, ‎Vicinity Centres’ executive general manager of digital product and strategy, marketing, people and culture, flexible work arrangements can only accomplish so much. If employers assume they know what their female employees want, they won’t ever harness their full potential.

The shopping centre owner kicked off the project on International Women’s Day, with Carroll and her colleagues talking to a packed room about their own careers and ambitions. Although #SheImagines is an internal campaign, Carroll believes it will have an impact on retailers and consumers too.

“We have half a billion consumers coming through our centres every year, so it’s really important that a company like ours goes beyond unconscious bias and into action,” Carroll told IRW.

“I think leaders of industry are realising that we have a responsibility to be more deliberate and purpose-orientated. I can see the community looking to us for answers. If we don’t start listening, we risk becoming irrelevant over time.”  

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