Thought Leadership

Will International Women’s Day 2023 be a turning point for performative feminism?

Performative feminism won’t wash with weary audiences

Isobel Buckingham

Head of Editorial Content The 10 Group


Francesca Lawson never imagined that her lockdown project would go viral.

The Manchester-based freelance copywriter and social media manager created a Twitter bot in 2021 with her software developer partner, Ali Fensome, that would automatically retweet brands’ International Women’s Day posts alongside their gender pay gap. 

The bot’s first iteration got reported as spam and banned from Twitter because it retweeted companies too quickly. Last year, Francesca and Ali put a 10-minute time delay on retweets, which kept them up and running, amassing hundreds of thousands of followers as it exposed the gap between companies’ claims and actions. 

Curtain call for performative feminism?

Francesca and Ali’s bot was created in reaction against performative feminism. As brands fight to outdo one another by planning campaigns that often feel disconnected from their ethos and actions with respect to gender equality, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot brands that are taking action to address inequalities. 

The commodification of feminism – the use of feminist messaging to sell products and services – isn’t always obvious to consumers, but it can be harmful to progress. Many brands, for example, have jumped on the #GirlBoss trend – referring to a successful woman who obtains power in male-dominated spaces – without fully examining their operations and supply chains to ensure they are contributing towards female economic empowerment. 

And it’s not just about inaccurate representation; brands' empty promises could potentially be harmful to the causes they claim to back. Behind the illusion of empowerment projected by the sea of smiling female workers on social media every March, gender equality in work continues to slip. PwC analysis estimates that in OECD countries, progress was set back by at least two years as a result of COVID-19. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly wary of performative feminism – particularly around International Women’s Day – and demanding that brands match their claims by taking action to empower their female employees and customers.

Isobel Buckingham, Head of Editorial Content at The 10 Group

How to cut through without getting called out

Consumers are becoming increasingly wary of performative feminism – particularly around International Women’s Day – and demanding that brands match their claims by taking action to empower their female employees and customers. And there’s a prize for those who get it right: according to Edelman, people reward trusted brands with advocacy (58%) and investment (80%).

In 2021, Google announced a $25 million fund dedicated to advancing the economic prosperity of women and girls around the world, while its campaign, “First of Many”, celebrated women pioneers - from Cardi B to Özlem Türeci, the woman behind a COVID-19 vaccine. Similarly, Netflix took the opportunity to launch its investment in the next generation of female storytellers – investing $5 million in identifying, training and providing work placements for up-and-coming talent.

Money talks – but brands don’t have to pledge millions to be taken seriously. Authentic, meaningful and representative content can be just as effective. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign railed against the industry’s traditional formula of airbrushed bodies and shiny hair by using diverse models and celebrating their differences. Dove’s new approach had a significant impact on its bottom line, as well as its brand perception: sales jumped from $2.5 to $4 billion in the campaign's first ten years.

Still, radical creative routes can only take you so far; if the Gender Pay Gap Bot taught us anything, it’s that companies need to get their house in order before making bold claims on International Women’s Day. Women make up two thirds of The 10 Group’s board, which means the decisions we make – for our own company and on behalf of our clients – are designed to consciously empower both genders. Our CEO, Elaine Stern, uses her platform to address issues impacting women in the workplace. In her recent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, she shared advice to help employers support working mothers to balance work and childcare. 

Embrace equity with authenticity

As marketing teams prepare to #EmbraceEquity this International Women’s Day, they would be forgiven for feeling nervous as they anticipate the critical gaze of the public (not to mention the bots). Posting pictures of employees hugging themselves - the official IWD 2023 pose - won’t have any impact on brand sentiment if it isn’t backed by action.

This isn't to say that brands should do nothing. At the current rate of progress, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 132 years to achieve gender parity – but this could be accelerated if organisations across all sectors take bold action to support women. Performative feminism won’t wash with weary audiences – but meaningful actions and authentic storytelling can generate trust and loyalty while making a real difference to women’s lives.

Guest Author

Isobel Buckingham

Head of Editorial Content The 10 Group


Isobel Buckingham is Head of Editorial Content at marketing communications agency The 10 Group. A trained journalist with expertise in producing compelling and strategic editorial content, Isobel crafts stories for a range of organisations – from global professional services firms to household consumer brands. Before joining The 10 Group, Isobel worked at Vodafone Group and in PwC’s Content and Thought Leadership team, where she led the editorial development of the annual Women in Work report, a study outlining female economic empowerment across the OECD. She is passionate about the potential for storytelling to drive greater equality in society, and often writes about issues impacting women in the workplace.

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