Clarks shoes found themselves laced in controversy last week through a largely predictable set of circumstances: a range of children’s shoes released in two lines, one for boys, one for girls. The boys shoes range was called ‘leader’, and the girls were gifted with a range entitled ‘dolly babe’. Your mental image of the associated colour schemes is likely correct, with pink hearts competing against blue tractors. But there’s more than that: Clarks had previously been called out for the way that their boys shoes were tougher, offered more ankle support, and were positioned as suitable for tree climbing, whilst the girl’s shoes were not.
I have some sympathy for Clarks: anyone of a certain age in Britain (probably an age between 15 and 80, grew up with Clarks shoes, apparently none the worse for it, but there is something to learn about falling out of time. In retrospect, i suspect the fault is obvious.
Inequality is normalised, sexism accepted, normalisation being an intriguing mechanisms by which we come to believe that something is simply so, simply because it seemly always has been. Boys climb trees, girls play with dolls, unless they are a ‘tomboy’, whereby they are allowed to play like boys, on condition that they cut their hair short and have grubby knees to cut any ties with a conventional notion of ‘girlhood’.
Girls may wear pink shoes. And they may also climb trees. As may boys. The question is not one of capability, it’s one of normalisation and expectation: if a girl climbs trees, does she do so in opposition to normalised views, or in line with them.
If Clarks made any mistake, it may be the most obvious one of name choices: i personally know no girl who would relish being called ‘dolly’, or ‘babe’, or at least certainly not by my. ‘Leader’ carries none of those connotations. Words are powerful, and best used with care.
The shoe company was naturally called out on Twitter in short order, and withdrew the range in short order. All good action to take when suddenly and, i suspect, unexpectedly, one finds oneself in the Twitter crosshairs.
For me, normalisation is an insidious aspect of inequality: some of the harder battles we have already fought, meaning it’s no longer viewed as ok to offer an unwanted pinch or slap on the behind, and yet even this week a friend in her thirties regaled stories of being whistled and catcalled by builders as she walked past. The second degree of inequality is more deeply embedded, and harder to shift, often and largely because we simply see no need to shift it.
Like pay inequality: why are we even having an ongoing conversation about this? If organisations believe that they pay equally, they could simply commission a blind study of role and renumeration to evidence that. And yet they don’t.
One of the roles of Social Leaders is to reduce inequality, to fight for fairness, not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because if we do not hear all the voices, if we only hear those who were gifted the leadership shoes, we are organisationally weaker for it.