Pantene Is a Voice for Women? Hardly

Is there anything more sexist than the notion that professional women need a hair care brand to help them learn to 'be strong and shine'?

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Jin Lee / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Pantene Philippines video that’s gone viral—thanks in large part to a ringing endorsement from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who gave it the “Lean In prize of the day” on the social network—is indeed a powerful statement of the inequity, workplace and otherwise, between how society perceives men and women. Running with the tagline, “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine,” the video points out that where a man might be perceived as “persuasive,” a woman is “pushy.” While a man is a “boss,” a woman is “bossy.”

Indeed, these double standards often ring true. And yet, there’s considerable irony in a beauty brand using feminism to move product. And that is, undeniably, the overarching intent here: to sell shampoo. While one message might be a warning against the danger of gender stereotyping, what the video also says, in no uncertain terms, is that looks matter, above all. You might be on the receiving end of derision and disdain from colleagues who’d accept, or even praise, the same behavior from a man, but no worries. At least your hair will look good.

(WATCHPantene Breaks Down Every Sexist Workplace Stereotype in One Ad)

But the real problem with Pantene’s PSA-as-advertisement is that it serves the dangerous purpose of pitting, once again, women against men. A caption beneath the video reads, “70 percent of men think that women need to downplay their personality to be accepted.” Where men are “smooth,” the video tells us, women are “show-offs.” Where men are “dedicated,” women are “selfish.” To suggest that women are the only ones being discriminated against, however, is as dangerous as suggesting that good hair can help them end such inequity. It’s also inaccurate. A study commissioned by staffing agency Kelly Services found this year that nearly 35% of men said they believed they had experienced sex-based discrimination over the past five years at work. The numbers for women? 33.3%.

It’s also inaccurate to suggest that women are undeserving of criticism. Perhaps female leaders are bossy, or pushy. They may need to be. Or they may not. Either way, studies show that women can be workplace bullies: A 2011 survey by the American Management Association found that 95% of 1,000 working women polled believe they had been undermined by another woman at some point in their careers, while a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees that found women working under a female supervisor reported more distress and symptoms of physical stress than those working under a male supervisor.

Pantene’s tack isn’t surprising. But it’s not the whole story, and it’s certainly not genuine. Sure: 70% of men may think women need to be different than they are. But this ad targets women, who don’t need Pantene to tell them how they’re judged differently; they live it every day. And by speaking up for women in such a manner, Pantene is reinforcing the idea that women need to be spoken up for.

After all, is there anything more sexist than the notion that professional women need a hair care brand—or anyone, really—to help them learn to “be strong and shine”?

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