OPINION: Listening to your inner feminist a smart strategy

TAKE NOTE: Failing to critically examine your communications can turn off half the population.

TAKE NOTE: Failing to critically examine your communications can turn off half the population.

PROFESSIONAL communicators strive to get people to think in particular ways. Whether it's a health agency promoting immunisation or a local company flogging surfboards, the underlying techniques are quite similar.

The techniques aim to engage audiences and get them to build in their minds the meanings intended for them. Those working in the business would rarely, if ever, stop to consider the impacts of their work from a feminist view.

I'm talking a broad feminist viewpoint that sees efforts aimed at achieving equality of the sexes, nothing more radical than that.

Such efforts don't have to be specific campaigns but can be part of everyday business. It just means being a bit more conscious of what's going on. It could be called switching on your "inner feminist".

What happens when you flick on this switch? Well, you become more alert to things that are going on in your organisation that could directly or indirectly put women down. You also become more alert to whether the community is accepting of images and messages that are demeaning to women.

People working in communication and marketing who've turned on their inner feminist might start looking at the overall mission of their client or employer. This is what usually guides the strategic communications strategy. If this in itself has problems for women, everything down the line is likely to as well.

They could also consider the skills of the communication team. They can ask to what degree they are able or willing to interpret what's going on in the wider community with regards to women.

Then, when they're considering the communications strategy itself, they can examine what it means for women. This is both for the women who may be targeted in a campaign, and for the women who might be the unintended audience.

It also applies to the people implementing the strategy. A communicator who has switched on their inner feminist may question rolling out a strategy they see as subjugating women in some way.

Another way of looking at the issue is examining how audiences themselves are building meaning from an organisation's communication.

You might think that you're selling a product but find you're inadvertently telling women it's not a product for them.

You could be losing half your potential market.

Women may also be constructing other images of your company from your communication efforts. They may see your company as not welcoming women and they may not apply for jobs.

You might be turning away half the talent pool without knowing it.

This in turn decreases career opportunities for women.

In strategic communications work, the organisation and audiences involved sometimes accept each other's understanding. These are situations like when all parties see a development as a good move or can understand why a health service cut is needed.

Audiences who've engaged with a campaign have thought about what's being said, and looked at what the organisation is doing. If they see these things have aligned, then the meaning is agreed.

This is not always the case, with organisations and audiences often seen negotiating and disputing meanings. Disagreements about mining projects, funding cuts and transport corridors are cases in point. Professional communicators are often involved in these situations. In the midst of the hurly-burly that is often part and parcel of these contests, what would someone look at if their inner feminist was switched on?

For starters, you could look at whether women were being included in consultation efforts. Women make up 51 per cent of the population so ensuring they are well represented will put them into the picture.

Then you need to look at methods of negotiation or dispute resolution that are being used. Certain styles of communication and consultation are more favoured by women. These include small group discussions rather than large town meetings. If such preferences are ignored, the voices of women may be silenced even though they may be physically present.

What about digging deeper and seeing whether the age, race, ethnicity, culture or sexual preference of women in the community is being considered.

This further complicates things but doesn't let the inner feminist off the hook. To truly advocate for the equality of women, efforts should include all women.

Maybe it's also time for everyone in our community to switch on their inner feminist.

We could make more of an effort to report and celebrate those organisations that are getting it right - not just with their policies or the messages they're putting out.

We need to celebrate the tangible outcomes such as better productivity, equal pay for work of equal value, and dare it be mentioned, happier people.

Melanie James is a senior lecturer in communication at the University of Newcastle who spoke on feminism and business communication at a recent conference in Spain.

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