Sexism – or an allegation of sexism – has become an increasingly important reputation risk for individuals, politicians and corporations. And these claims sometimes arise from what US crisis expert Jonathan Bernstein has called “mind-blowingly unprofessional” acts.
That’s how Bernstein described a foolish twitter message posted by Taiwanese computer-maker ASUS to promote its new computer at a major tech fair. The tweet showed a photo from behind a young woman in a tight-fitting dress demonstrating the computer, and the message: “The rear looks pretty nice. So does the new transformer AIO”
ASUS promptly apologised and blamed the fact that “a number of third parties had access to our social media accounts during this period.” That did little to forestall a predictable social media backlash.
Just weeks later pen-maker Bic came under attack for its “Bic for Her” which comes in pastel colours and is designed to “fit comfortably in a women’s hand.” This time there was a firestorm of sarcastic online reviews. Importantly the story quickly spread to the mainstream media, where Bic’s reputation was further savaged, not helped by the company apparently failing to respond.
It should have been a clear warning for all manufacturers. But no. Soon afterwards Fujitsu launched its “Floral Kiss” personal computer designed especially for women, which comes with daily horoscopes and a digital scrapbook which “automatically stores and organises pictures and URLs of the items, retail stores, recipes and other content that users come across when they are casually browsing the web.” Fujitsu proudly announced that the computer had been designed primarily by the company’s female employees, but they too had gravely misread the wider market.
Then, in late October, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned an advertisement by travel site National Express which featured a French can-can dancer lifting her skirt to reveal a strategically positioned square with the words “See what you’re missing in Europe.” The Authority said the ad was offensive and degrading to women. The company defended the campaign, but admitted that they could have toned the images down prior to launching the adverts. Additionally, the company said media owners, without its knowledge or consent, had placed the outdoor ads in family-friendly environments. And just two weeks ago, Jeep Australia posted a facebook photo featuring a scantily-clad woman in a jeep and a supposedly funny caption about military budget cuts, which was rapidly deleted after online complaints.
Of course it’s not just brands which transgress, and for individuals the result can be much more serious. The Speaker of Australia’s Parliament had to stand aside because of various allegations against him, but it was the subsequent revelation of sexist emails which forced him to resign. Similarly the former CEO of energy broker EnergyWatch had a long history of unusual behaviour, but it was a racist and sexist rant on his private Facebook account which finally brought about his downfall and nearly destroyed the company. Most recently, two Republican candidates in US election were defeated after controversial statements about rape.
How can organizations prevent allegations of sexism from damaging their reputation? Obviously the first and most important step is to avoid doing dumb stuff in the first place. If it does happen, don’t ignore it (like Bic); don’t try to blame someone else (like ASUS) and don’t try to defend it (like National Express). With a subject as contentious as sexism there can be room for interpretation or disagreement. But when reputation is at risk the answer is simple – apologise, do it quickly, and MEAN IT.