[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Sylvie BORAU[/su_pullquote]
The negative effects of exposure to advertising female models on women’s self-esteem and body satisfaction are now well known. But a new negative effect of advertising female models has been uncovered: they can be perceived as real sexual competitors by female consumers and trigger indirect aggression.

Female advertising models are highly physically attractive as well as ultra-thin, digitally-edited, and portrayed in a sexually provocative manner (for example, with pouting lips and arching hips). As a result, they represent formidable competitors. Of course, women know that they are very unlikely to meet these unreal threatening competitors in real life. But this knowledge does not stop them from considering these virtual models like real sexual competitors. Recent research I conducted with Jean-François Bonnefon from Toulouse School of Economics, investigated the consequences of this imaginary competition.

In a first series of studies, we asked 452 female respondents to answer online questionnaires. Female respondents were first exposed to the picture of either an ideal model (highly physically attractive, very thin, and adopting a sexually provocative attitude) or a non-ideal model (moderately attractive, average size, and with a non-provocative attitude). Then respondents answered some questions related to their reactions to the model. Results showed that women exposed to the ideal model expressed more mate-guarding jealousy (e.g., they were worried that their mate would leave them for a woman like this model), they expressed more derogatory comments (such as bullying, fat-shaming, or slut-shaming), and they expressed more social exclusion of their imaginary rival (e.g., they wouldn’t be friends with a woman like this model). In sum, female viewers engage in an imaginary intrasexual competition against ideal advertising models, targeting them with the same aggressive strategies they would use toward real-life rivals.

We then ran an additional study to identify which physical characteristic triggers indirect aggression. Does the provocative attitude of the models or their thin body size activate these aggressive strategies? To answer that question, we cross-manipulated the body size of the model and her provocative attitude. That is, female respondents were either exposed to a thin and provocative, a thin and non-provocative, an average size and provocative, or an average size and non-provocative female model. We found that the provocative attitude of the models, and not their thin body size, was the characteristic that triggered viewers to engage in indirect aggression. This is an important result, given the attention that the media put on the models’ body size, rather than on her provocative posture.

But why is the provocative posture of the models more likely to trigger intrasexual competition and indirect aggression than their thin body size? This is surprising considering the current obsession of women and the media for thinness. Further analyses suggested that female viewers engage in these aggressive strategies because the provocative attitude of the model – and not her thin body size – communicates an intention to seduce men, an intention to elicit men’s sexual desire, and, potentially, an intention to poach men. As in daily life, a sexually provocative attitude communicates confidence about one’s sex appeal, as well as flirtatiousness, sexual availability, and promiscuity. No wonder women feel threatened by provocative female models: they represent a menace to their current or prospective romantic relationships.

In daily life, when facing a menace to their romantic relationships, women usually experience jealousy. Jealousy is an emotion that warns the individual that an action must be taken to protect their current or prospective mate from a potential rival. And indirect aggression is women’s main action against female rivals and mate poachers. It involves the use of derogation and social exclusion. Our research shows indeed that women engage in indirect aggression when they are exposed to provocative female models, and do so regardless of the body size of the model displaying the attitude.

So, when advertisers feature a sexually provocative female model in their advertisements, they insidiously promote a culture of female bullying based on slut-shaming and social exclusion. Indeed, we have seen that the mere exposure to a sexually charged and provocative model is enough to activate Intrasexual competition and indirect aggression, as if female viewers were exposed to real-life rivals. We can imagine then that repeated media exposure to such imaginary rivals surely reinforces patterns of indirect aggression way beyond what would be expected from daily interactions with actual women, for at least two reasons: First, the use of sexually provocative models in advertising is pervasive. Second, the level of sexual provocativeness of models in advertising far exceeds the level of flirtatiousness performed by women in daily life.

To sum up, our research suggests that the use of sexually provocative models needlessly reinforces and fosters a culture of indirect aggression among women, fueling the alarming trends of Intrasexual bullying and slut shaming. Considering the unrealistic number of sexually provocative models in the media, women might be frequently subjected to these bouts of Intrasexual competition.

To curb the detrimental impact of sexual provocativeness in advertising, it would be wise to contain its pervasiveness and to avoid the most vulnerable consumers to be overly exposed to such ads. Because exposure is inevitable though, we recommend educating young audiences about these unintended effects – as young audiences are both more targeted by sexual appeals and more vulnerable. We do not recommend eradicating sexual provocativeness from advertising though, as banning these advertisements would be tantamount to giving a politically correct and archaic representation of women. However, consumer-advocate organizations, media watchdogs, and concerned citizens have a large role to play, both for raising public awareness and for incentivizing companies to maintain responsible practices.

This article was originally published in Brand Quarterly Magazine (January 2018).

[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Alain Klarsfeld[/su_pullquote]

Between 2010 and 2012, three key Acts were promulgated, requiring businesses and administrations to make significant progress in terms of gender equality. The Act of 2011 focused particularly on gender balance on the administrative and supervisory boards of companies and public administrations. Here is an overview of the impact of this Act by the research professor Alain Klarsfeld.

Professional equality and the fight against discrimination: a mixed record for overall progress

Despite the laws and affirmative action in favor of employment equality and the fight against discrimination, only minor advances have been made in many areas. Companies have certainly gotten close to the legal quota of 6% required concerning employment for the disabled, whereas the proportion was barely 4% ten years ago, but this is still far from satisfactory. Regarding older workers, companies have also made real efforts to prolong their employment (+8% in 7 years), with a rate of 44.5% for 55-64 year-olds at the end of 2012, after a long period of stagnation during the 2000s. Among other positive developments, we should mention the creation in 2011 of an ombudsman (Défenseur des Droits), who joined the French High Authority for the Fight Against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE) and whose role is to further the fight against discrimination by ensuring that access to one’s legal rights, now simplified and streamlined, is more effective.
However, the employment situation of young people remains a concern, and has not significantly improved. As an example, a young graduate with five years of higher education can take, on average, a year to find a first position, despite the legislative incentive known as the ” Contract between Generations*”. Similarly, the employment rate of people from immigration populations, whether first or second generation, has changed very little.

Unprecedented progress

There is nonetheless a silver lining to this rather gloomy picture: the entry of women into the governing bodies of companies and institutions: the supervisory boards. It all started with an Act of 2011 concerning the balanced representation of women and men on supervisory boards and also to professional equality, which provided for the progressive introduction of quotas as a step towards the feminization of the governing bodies of large companies. The goal was to reach 40% of women by 2017, made mandatory with financial and non-financial penalties in the event of non-compliance. This is a real cultural shift that has opened the way for women to play a major role.

The issue of quotas

Quota-based policies are not universally approved. In fact, they are frequently contested. Their implementation may even be counter-productive, as evidenced by the tensions around ethnic or caste quotas in India or Malaysia. There were no such quotas before 2008, when they were introduced by Norway, since followed by 11 other countries, but they have had an encouraging effect in favoring equality on supervisory boards. It might have been supposed that the women in these positions would be seen as lacking legitimacy. However, studies show that the operation and work of boards of directors are improved. Women who are genuinely recruited for their skills appear to be less conformist, ask more questions and make these bodies more dynamic.

This legal obligation has also had the effect of putting a stop to a damaging system of cooptation. The boards of directors tended to exist in isolation, coopting new members from among their acquaintances. The imposition of quotas has opened new horizons regarding professional recruitment processes, by head-hunters for example, who are now compiling databases of highly qualified women and offering them to apply to these positions. In the future, it would be a good idea to verify that the creation of directories of qualified people has led to the recruitment of more professional administrators overall, and not necessarily just women.

Positive trickle-down effect

Thanks to this Act, which imposes a “positive obligation”, offers have emerged for training as administrators, helping to make the role genuinely professional. In the years to come, it will be necessary to verify that the presence of women on boards of directors supports or provides leverage for parity in corporate executive positions, and that no further legislation is necessary to achieve parity. Already, outside the scope of the Act, major groups, including companies listed on the French CAC 40, have set themselves goals for the recruitment of female managers and top executives. This is less of a blunt instrument than an obligation to comply with quotas, but it will again be necessary to verify that its potential trickle-down effect in companies, at every hierarchical level, produces real progress.

* A scheme introduced in 2013 to help private companies create jobs, including permanent employment contracts for young people.

[su_note note_color=”#ebebeb”]From an interview with Alain Klarsfeld and the chapter “Equality and Diversity in years of crisis in France”, co-authored with Anne-Françoise Bender and Jacqueline Laufer, published in the book “International Handbook on Diversity Management at Work – Country Perspectives on Diversity and Equal Treatment (second edition)”, May 2014.[/su_note]

[su_spoiler title=”Definition”]Professional equality: This means the same rights and opportunities for both men and women, in particular as regards access to employment, working conditions, training, qualifications, mobility, promotion, work-life flexibility and remuneration (equal pay).[/su_spoiler]

[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]The chapter “Equality and diversity in years of crisis in France”, published in 2014, provides an up-to-date overview of developments in France concerning professional equality and diversity since the first edition of the book “International Handbook on Diversity Management at work – Country Perspectives on Diversity and Equal Treatment” was published in 2010. The book is the result of an analysis of changes to the European and French legislative framework and of the various reports and publications on the subject, as well as of paying attention to and monitoring the work of think-tanks, associations and businesses that deal with the fight against discrimination and the importance of diversity, in and outside of Europe.[/su_spoiler]