The time we took on Unilever – and won!

Lynx Axe Apollo Space Academy

It all started with this post in which I outlined why I thought the Lynx/Axe Space Academy competition was damagingly sexist. The post ruffled a few feathers and was amplified via Twitter and Facebook. Since the issue made me so cross, I phoned the Lynx press office in the UK to get their thoughts on the matter. I also emailed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to bring it to his attention. The statements on behalf of Lynx and NASA are worth comparing. I’ll let you guess who took the matter of media stereotypes more seriously.

A tip-off from Carmen Victoria from Mexico pointed to an even bigger problem, that not only were the adverts and images reinforcing out-of-date stereotypes, but that in her country, being male was a requirement for entering the competition.

Some sleuthing by Remco Timmermans uncovered that this wasn’t just the case in Mexico. In fact according to the terms and conditions for the competition, ladies in Russia, Mexico, Ukraine, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were not eligible to take part, purely on the basis of them having two X-chromosomes.

Russia sent the first woman into space, and yet in the 50th anniversary year of that flight, Russian women were not allowed to enter for a chance to win their own ticket to space! The Russian-based international news agency RIA Novosti picked up on the story.

What began as a small ripple was beginning to form waves…

The US Super Bowl brought the Axe Apollo Space Academy advert to the screens of millions of Americans. Maha Atal, who writes for Forbes, had read my post about the inherent sexism in the UK version of the advert and decided to write a piece about the US advert for their website. “The sexism of the advert is offensive and damaging” she said, before adding that “this campaign also fails as advertising”.

Ian O’Neill also picked up on it for Discovery News in his round-up of space-related Super Bowl commercials. Citing a post on Wired, he said “The assumption has been that the Axe competition is only open to guys, but it’s not”.

At this point I’d like to thank Ian and Maha for linking back to my original post and helping to bring the issue to more readers,and also the #astrogrrls on Twitter who have been sharing links and providing moral support. The Campaign for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) invited me to summarise my original post for their website and newsletter and I was invited to speak on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour about why I thought this was an issue.

Lynx/Axe Space AcademyLynx effect tweet 2

On Tuesday we got some response from the official Lynx Twitter account, who apologised for offence caused and said that the competition wasn’t meant to exclude anyone. Which seems a bit odd in light of the fact that in several countries, the competition explicitly does just that.

The question had to be asked: is it legal to prevent women for applying for the contest? To find out, you’d have to ask some lawyers that are familiar with the legal systems of the countries involved, and that’s exactly what Maha did. Writing again for Forbes, she discovered that “Several of those countries explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, as does Axe’s parent company, Unilever”. Maha put this to the Axe, and they’ve been forced to have a rethink. In their response they state:

“Unilever has communicated to all markets in all regions, that the contest is open to both men and women. Upon review, certain markets are currently revising their terms & conditions to reflect this directive”.

We made a difference! We made ripples into waves and we made a difference. I can’t tell you how excited and proud that makes me feel. After the abuse some people levelled at me when I first spoke up, I can stand tall and say that I helped make Axe back down on a very unfair part of their competition.

It doesn’t change what I think about the adverts themselves and my concerns that they could put young women off considering a science career. This 2012 study into sexism in the lab highlights the effect of “enduring cultural stereotypes”, so there is still more to be done. The comment from Karen James on my original post proves exactly how important it is that we show that women are astronauts too.  “As a woman who has applied to become a NASA astronaut and made it pretty far along in the process, I am particularly offended by the Axe/Lynx campaign. It is precisely because NASA has worked so hard to distance itself from its overly masculine past that I felt I had a chance in the first place.”

In other news, Gillian Finnerty and Lorraine Rodger of the #Astrogrrls have been busily tweeting the people at Lynx to get them to change the text that appears once you’ve voted for someone. Congratulations to them, as it is now gender neutral as opposed to explaining how you can get “him” more votes.

This all goes to show that if you care about something, if you’re brave, if you stand up and speak out, or support those who do, you can make a difference. It’s doesn’t mean it’s easy, but every little bit helps. Today we made a difference. Today is a good day.

Thank you to everyone who’s helped, and everyone who took a moment to vote for me to get to space (and if you haven’t already, now would be a good time!) ;)

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