Thought Leadership

Go Hug Yourself: Part One

The roll back in gender equality means that International Women’s day demands so much more than performative feminism.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


At the current rate of progress, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 132 years to achieve gender parity. So perhaps it is no wonder that women in advertising may want to adopt the foetal position when hearing that International Women’s Day 2023 will be marked by a campaign encouraging Women and their allies to #EmbraceEquity by sharing pictures hugging themselves.  

While the UN announced last year that the theme for International Women’s Day was ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’ the IWD website received mixed responses when it revealed its theme for International Women’s Day 2023 was ‘Embrace Equity’. A campaign strategy accompanied by a request that women share pictures hugging themselves. 

Of course, there is more than one way to support IWD and choice is the backbone of modern feminism. However, in an ecosystem in which a growing number of data points underline a systemic rollback in gender equality, is it any wonder that the campaign has hit a raw nerve amongst women tiring with empty empowerment messaging?

With this in mind, we asked industry experts if it’s time for brands to stop simply celebrating International Women’s Day and start investing in closing the gap. Will International Women’s Day 2023 be a turning point for performative feminism?

Carolyn Laing

Carolyn Laing.jpeg

Managing Director


Closing the gap is a very pertinent phrase. Last week the IPA census showed that the gender pay gap had dropped to 17%. Wow, aren’t we lucky? Just 17% now! Let’s give ourselves a big congratulatory hug. This shows there is still a lot of work to be done. But over exaggerated cynicism aside, it also shows that the work being done by some dedicated people is having an impact. We have a real tendency in this business to get behind a cause. To slap a badge on it. To create a crowd or raise awareness at a specific time of year, but we’ve always been less good in doing that all year round – this is why we became a B Corp, to do just this. To try and make a difference all year round. IWD won’t be a turning point – but hopefully it will be another incremental step and reminder, that there is still much work to be done to achieve parity. To be a turning point, we need more people, putting more pressure on those in power more of the time. To support women all year round, not just one day year. 

Cressida Holmes-Smith

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Managing Director

Lucky Generals

It’s starting from a place of ‘ick’. Hugging yourself isn’t a natural behaviour - I would much rather give or receive a hug thank you. ‘Go hug yourself’ implies equity is out there, ready and waiting if you’d just love yourself. This makes it a women’s problem to solve, detracting the issue away from the real problem which is the media, the system, historical sexism, the patriarchy, and Jeremy Clarkson. Where is this equity that only requires our acceptance? I don't see it. There’s a discrepancy between maternity and paternity support, a burgeoning gender pay gap, escalating childcare costs (which are the most expensive in the developed world) and age discrimination starting as early as 35 for working women. 

The issue is that whilst 'striking the IWD pose' shows solidarity, it doesn't change anything. And that’s the problem with armchair activism. No empty messages should be shared by companies or individuals without action plans, targets and KPIs that create equity. Sadly we’re not yet in a position where equity exists just ready for the embracing. And women figuratively or literally hugging themselves is not the solution.

Dionne Maxwell

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Director of Diversity, Belonging and Engagement

Jungle Creations

The conversation around International Women’s Day is moving beyond simply celebrating/acknowledging the key achievements women worldwide have made to society, and that's a great marker for the progress we've made so far. However, now is no time to get complacent. Calling out brand hypocrisy has become a consumers right of passage, so performative activities no longer garner the respect it maybe previously once did.

So, if a brand wants to get involved with marking International Women’s Day this year, they must also be willing to put their hands up in recognition of the work that still needs to be done. The celebration of women’s work in the industry is important and can cause impactful changes, however in isolation it’s not enough.

It would be really encouraging to see brands take the opportunity to be fully transparent with their audiences this year; explaining what tangible policies they have introduced since the last IWD to improve equity in the workplace and what we can expect in the next 12 months that change the gender disparity narrative.

Hugs won’t increase our salaries to be on a par with our male counterparts, pay our mortgages or put food on the table. But open and honest dialogue does and that’s what paves the way for substantial change.

Elke van Tienen

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Global Head of People & Chief People Officer


IWD will always play a critical role in amplifying voices, raising awareness, and driving action to close the gender gap. And we should all celebrate its powerful call to cultures worldwide. 

Yet, many brands persist with statements of intent and/or virtue signalling that fail to manifest in everyday behaviour or lasting transformation. People are smart, increasingly see through tick-boxing marketing veneer - wanting to see real action and holding brands accountable.

The truth is, meaningful and sustainable transformation can’t be achieved in one day, by one initiative. Success comes from long-term investment and commitment to change. As Venetia La Manna says: "Solidarity is not a t-shirt."

Happily, there are impressive examples of brands moving the needle with clear action – paving the path for others.

Diageo pops up time and again. Expectations for gender parity in its agencies shows true belief which extends across its business - including powerful female leadership and pioneering investment in Creative Equals Returners scheme in the UK, India and US. Another is P&G’s Olay – using its creative platform to launch initiatives such as #FacetheSTEMgap with a $1m donation and 10-year vision to close the STEM gender gap.

Whether it’s IWD or a completely different event, provocation and disruption can only be a good thing to hold businesses and brands accountable for real action and not just words.

Laura Jones

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Strategy Partner


Given we are now an astonishing 132 years away from Gender parity (with 36 years added on due to Covid), we need to do more than just ‘embrace equity’, we  need to fight tooth and nail to upend the systemic issues that continue to stall gender equality across the world. 

Too often IWD sees brands regurgitate a shot of some smiling women with vacuous copy about smashing the glass ceiling - but we need action not words. 

When brands do use their influence to close the gap, amazing things happen. Take the Emancipation Loan from Mi Banco in Peru that was the first bank to allow women to obtain loans without their husband’s signature, or Data Tienda from WeCapital in Mexico that converted shopkeeper’s records to official credit histories for women  - both promoted greater financial inclusion and economic opportunity to help tip the scales in countries where gender equality is less advanced.  

By truly understanding the lives of all women, we can accelerate positive change. Unilever has invested millions of dollars into ‘Womanness’ - the first line of modern menopause products developed for women, by women, and have also taken steps to become a menopause friendly employer (up to one in four women leave work due to the severity of menopause symptoms). Innocent is also leading the charge as a fertility friendly workplace offering separate paid leave days per treatment cycle, a medical fridge and access to fertility experts. 

Hopefully last year’s brilliant @PayGapApp twitter bot that exposed the gender pay gap of any company celebrating IWD will stem the amount of ‘performative feminism’ we witness this year. But my gut tells me, whilst we might see some progress, old habits may unfortunately die hard.

Aimee Luther


Managing Director

The Liberty Guild

Go. What. Myself? I don’t consider myself a feminist particularly but digesting the IWD ’23 theme left me gagging on my breakfast baps.  My cheeks reddened and hands clammy-ed trying to understand who thought this would nail the problem. 

It is the enormity of the issue, outlined by the World Economic Forum, that grates with the whisper-to-action of ‘embrace equity’ that feels like a kick in the fanny.   Demanding gender equity isn’t going to happen with a hug.  It needs a movement, education and action.  

It’s also important to remember that we’re the privileged ones, sitting reading Bite on our Macs with a café au lait for company.   For women across the developing world, who don’t have basic safety, food security or maternal health care – a hug isn’t going to hit the spot.

So next IWD, let’s channel our energy and influence into activism.  Let’s encourage brands to use the day to celebrate exactly what they have done to drive equity for women over the previous 364 days.  Let’s hero the businesses and people who have gone to great lengths in order for the world to see women as equals. And let’s try and reduce the 132 years until we reach gender parity.  

Melissa Robertson

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Dark Horses

The very idea that I might curate a picture of me hugging myself to acknowledge International Women’s Day sickens me to my core - an unequivocal gip in my mouth. It feels different yet somehow sickeningly familiar to David Cameron’s hug-a-hoodie phase. It’s patronising, demeaning, but most of all pointless. IWD’s whole raison d’être is to celebrate both the incredible strides and terrible sacrifices that have been made over the years to accelerate gender parity. And as ever with ‘progress’, any steps forward are too often followed up with a number of steps back. 

It’s doubtless a real challenge to get the nuances and tone right in how to demand and create change. Years, indeed centuries, of vilification as ‘angry feminists’ has demonstrated that a degree of charm, balance and even humour can not only be disarming, but also highly effective. 

But whichever way we do it, it can’t just be passive, and a ‘self-love’ photo  just isn’t going to cut the mustard. We must celebrate progress, but we must also make it easier to achieve - whether that’s consistently risking your life to make yourself heard  (Emmeline Pankhurst through to Malala), or just being proactive in providing tools, support, information and inspiration. It all counts. But doing trumps saying, so my request this #IWD is to pass on the empty rhetoric and photography, and actually do something of substance instead.

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