The new Always commercial that’s garnered a lot of internet attention over the past week does an important thing—it successfully highlights how thoughtless gender stereotypes can be. The ad and the Like a Girl campaign are part of an effort “to make sure that girls everywhere keep their confidence throughout puberty and beyond.” (And yes, create brand loyalty. Props, Leo Burnett. #working) As the ad illustrates, the good news is that girls aren’t born thinking that “like a girl” means something bad. Young girls hear “like a girl” and they hear the good things that means about themselves: giving your all, your best, your fastest, your toughest. The bad news is that at some point that changes. At some point, “like a girl” starts to mean weak or silly—as one ten-year-old girl in the commercial who can throw a mean punch admits, “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing… It sounds bad.”
That puberty is tough is not news. It’s a time of differentiation and of identification. And yes, it’s pretty weird for everyone. But when the word “girl” carries such strong connotations of frivolity and powerlessness, it’s no wonder that we see an effect on self-confidence at exactly the time it’s clearer than ever that you are a girl, and that’s different than being a boy.
Last month, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that hurricanes with female names are taken less seriously. Less seriously because the storm is coded as feminine. People bet their lives on the idea that a storm that hits like a girl won’t hurt. And betting on stereotypes is a terrible gamble. Death tolls from hurricanes with female names are, on average, twice as high.
As ridiculous as these notions are to begin with, what is particularly unfair is when gender stereotypes are thrown back in strong women’s faces. For those women whose confidence remains intact through puberty (or who are tough enough to fake it), there will be yet another hurdle. There will be men (and other women) who actually fault you for not acting the part that has been written for you—for not acting “like a girl.” (While this is certainly a post for another day, these gender stereotypes go both ways. Men are expected to “act like men,” and that’s harmful as well).
At work, a man who is bold or aggressive is successful, a go-getter, while a woman who is bold or aggressive is a pushy bitch. This idea was the focus of a Pantene Philippines ad that went viral last year. It’s called Labels Against Women and is part of Pantenes Shine Strong campaign, which focuses on women in the workplace.
As this ad clearly illustrates, acting “like a man” is not contrary to professional success…unless, of course, you’re a woman. Although it is a glossified ad, what it highlights is a sad reality. As an employment lawyer, this is a story I’ve heard repeatedly; as a working woman, it’s one I’ve witnessed personally. These double standards are real, and they are damaging.
Pantene’s ad emphasizes that women and men doing the same thing are judged differently — with men rewarded and women chastised. The message is to do it anyway. It is an ad, and it clearly seeks to empower, but it raises difficult truths that aren’t easily solved with nothing more than resolve and good hair.
In the real world, it is difficult to ignore the name-calling. And there might even be work consequences you’ll have to deal with—you might face criticism in evaluations of your performance, your interactions, your tone, or your style. You might be faced with the (illegal, unfair and infuriating) choice of acting more like a girl or facing discipline, lower pay, or fewer promotional opportunities.
That’s where this all gets real. This isn’t about menstrual products or hair products. This is about how girls and then women view themselves, understand what is and is not possible, and ultimately are forced into stereotypical boxes.
Fighting established beliefs about gender, your hair is unlikely to remain shampoo-commercial-perfect. But that doesn’t mean these ads aren’t also right. We shouldn’t let “like a girl” be used as an insult. And we shouldn’t cave to pressure to act “like a girl” in order to be accepted and celebrated in our workplaces. Perhaps by acting authentically, by refusing to act like either a man or a woman regardless of the consequences, we can eventually change the conversation so that “like a girl” will actually come to mean “do your very best” and “like a boss” isn’t something reserved for the boys.