Where are all the unempowered women?

Abbey Gaunt calls for multifaceted representation of women in advertising that goes beyond the empowerment narrative

Abbey Gaunt

Senior Strategist House 337


The Oxford Dictionary defines empowerment as 'authority or power given to someone to do something. The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.'

Thanks to the work of campaigners, activists and UN principles, female empowerment has become interwoven into British society and a persistent part of the cultural zeitgeist.

That being said, it’s fair to say ‘empowerment’ has become an overused buzzword, woven into millennial pink Pinterest boards and cringey advertising.


Use over time 1970–2019: Empowerment. 

Brands have co-opted empowerment and use it as a shorthand to connect to women. But the way it is used is often unrealistic, limiting and exclusively achievable to the privileged few.

So, it’s no surprise that research has shown that less than half of British women think advertising gets them. And 83% feel stereotyped in marketing. Looking at the ads of today, you’ll see why.


The toxic portrayal of empowerment is specifically an advertising problem. Culturally, we’ve never been in a more creative place to depict the multifaceted identities of women.

Abbey Gaunt, Senior Strategist, House 337

Since #metoo, brands would have the public believe that empowerment is a woman kicking the door down of every room she enters, strutting her stuff and clicking her fingers to a Beyoncé track – all whilst wearing a brightly coloured girl boss suit. This exaggerated depiction is creating a disconnect by erasing the reality of complex women in our media.

In the real world, the public don’t proudly call themselves empowered – and how can they be? Last month, I attended WoW, one of the world’s biggest festivals celebrating women, girls, and non-binary people. The talks spanned a range of topics that affect women, from healthcare to body politics, misogyny, and violence. Yet, after an entire day of panel discussions, the word ‘empowerment’ never came up. This couldn’t be more different than my day job as a Strategist.

This led me to question my own relationship with empowerment. To keep my anxiety at bay, I have practised yoga every week for a year, yet still catch myself unwillingly sucking in my stomach in class. I feel powerless whenever I’m out with my best friend Jen, and a male stranger tells her to ‘smile’. I screamed holy fury to a man who wolf-whistled me from a van just two days after the beautiful Sarah Everard was murdered. Am I an empowered woman in today’s society? I don’t think so.

The toxic portrayal of empowerment is specifically an advertising problem. Culturally, we’ve never been in a more creative place to depict the multifaceted identities of women. From modern-day heroes in our books such as Elizabeth Zott, an unconventional scientist in Lessons in Chemistry, to Margot, an escort who skilfully escapes the elite in The Menu. On social media, women are embracing experimentation; whatever they identify with, there is a group waiting to welcome them. From sad girl to weird girl, women are finding empowerment with the support of creative communities, channelling the glory of our Tumblr days.


Yet, advertising has always told women there is one way to identify. From the 60’s apron-wearing housewife to the shoulder pad wearing woman of today; it’s clear that ‘empowerment’ is a repackaged version of unrealistic aspiration. If anything, marketing’s version of empowerment breeds the discourse as my friend Jen experiences; that women's identities are fair game for comment and instruction when they don't live up to a specific standard.

The public are so outraged by brands and society telling them the one way they should look, (‘heroin chic is back’). But according to Vice, 69% of women define themselves by their personalities. So dig deeper, and it’s clear they feel disconnect by brands that limit female identity.

According to writer and advocate Kenny Ethan Jones, who made history by being the first Trans man to appear in a period campaign: 'empowerment indicates there’s nothing to be done.’ As we all know, there is a hell of a lot to do to represent women better.

Empowerment indicates there’s nothing to be done.

Kenny Ethan Jones, Writer and Activist

It is a blanket term to ignore the granular work which needs to be done to understand the unique challenges women face within communities. Research by Women in Sport has shown that gendered school kits make girls feel sexualised, with 63% feeling self-conscious and falling out of love with sport. In comparison, we’re seeing feisty, quick tempo ads showing women smashing their personal bests. Why are ads only focusing on the highlights?

The desaturation of empowerment has made it an act of defiance to admit as women we are actually, not empowered at all. We’re seeing a behaviour shift of people sharing complexities of their lives online. From the strained relationships women have with others, to internal conflict with themselves. The TikTok trend ‘#Entering2023’ was a pertinent example of people rejecting romanticised reels and exposed on the highs and lows of their lives.

I want to see people like me and my friends in advertising who are strong-willed but have our days where we don’t have it all figured out.

Abbey Gaunt, Senior Strategist, House 337

So, what does this mean for women? The rejection of commodified empowerment will be heightened as they will aim to get comfortable with parts of their identities which don’t belong in a stunning showreel.

Author, journalist, and podcast host of How to Fail, Elizabeth Day recently spoke about the power of ‘flawed authenticity’. An idea she explores in her new book, ‘Friendaholic’.

She explained: “How to Fail gave me for the first time professionally an opportunity to show up as my real self. To really embrace that flawed authenticity that I’ve been searching for, for so long. I felt a slight disconnect when I wasn’t able to live in the fullness of that imperfect truth.”

Of course, it’s easier for marketers to focus on the confidence aspect of empowerment in the space of a 60-second ad. But we don’t have to always show the exaggerated end goal. There is a commercial benefit to brands doing the work to understand female identity. We don't have to know all the answers. But there is an opportunity for us to reflect the reality of today and show that being a woman is complex AF in 2023.

Personally, I want to see people like me and my friends in advertising who are strong-willed but have our days where we don’t have it all figured out. I want to see introverted women. I want to see a woman who doesn’t have to smile to show she’s empowered. There are so many creative, funny, refreshing ways to do this that are yet to be uncovered. And in Elizabeth Day’s words, we must show the fullness of empowerment as the imperfect truth.

Guest Author

Abbey Gaunt

Senior Strategist House 337


Abbey is a full-time Senior Strategist, part-time yogi, and culture vulture. From Rotherham to Peckham, Abbey aims to use her Northern graft to make advertising better from the inside out. With a passion for feminism, she has created brand campaigns that connect to the hearts and minds of female audiences; including Simply Be, Dr.Jart, CHANEL and ASDA George.

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