Why These Brands’ “Grey” Campaigns Miss the Mark

There's bigger issues than hair colour for women in the workplace
(photo: Stocksy)

The brands are at it again. This time, they’re going grey.

After Lisa LaFlamme was ousted from her anchor role at CTV National News after nearly 35 years at the network, two brands in particular took the opportunity to join the growing conversation about why she was dismissed—including her choice to let her hair go grey and reported questions from senior leadership about said decision—and the effects it may have on women in the workplace. 

Days after LaFlamme posted a video to Twitter announcing her departure, Dove Canada posted its own video to the platform. In it, a young woman’s brown hair goes “grey” using a filter, and the display text reads: “Women with grey hair are being edged out of the workplace.” Dove then invited women to “go grey” by turning their profile pictures greyscale and tweeted, “Age is beautiful. Women should be able to do it on their own terms, without consequences.” 

After that, Wendy’s Canada posted a photo to its social media accounts of the usual red-haired Wendy sporting a new grey ‘do. Unlike Dove who subtly implied support for LaFlamme, Wendy’s went straight to the point, using her name as a hashtag along with the caption: “Because a star is a star regardless of hair colour.” (For their part, Bell Media, the parent company of CTV, says LaFlamme’s termination had nothing to do with her age, gender or grey hair.)

These campaigns, though well-meaning, are lazy and miss the mark: Dove didn’t even feature a woman with actual grey hair in its Twitter video (it did show grey-haired women on Instagram) and Wendy’s just photoshopped its logo. Both shared platitudes about aging and beauty. While Dove and Wendy’s both acknowledge that yes, ageism is alive and well, that’s just the tip of the gender-discrimination iceberg: Women often face systemic career-advancement barriers that go beyond hair colour, problems that are compounded for racialized workers. 

Glass ceilings and glass cliffs exist 

Endless research shows that it’s harder for women to move up the ranks at a company due to sexism or racism—a phenomenon called the “glass ceiling.” When women are stuck in lower-level jobs, inequalities between men and women in the workplace grow. 

And, when women do get the chance to take on leadership roles, they might be put in a “glass cliff” situation, which is when they are elevated to positions of power when things are already going south at a company. Once they’re promoted to an executive role, they’re expected to turn around a bad situation, meaning they have a higher risk of failure. As researcher and Utah State University professor Alison Cook told Vox: “When firms are doing poorly, the really qualified white male candidates say, ‘I don’t want to step into this.’ Women and minorities might feel like this might be their only shot, so they need to go ahead and take it.”

The effects of being put into a glass cliff situation—and falling—are long-lasting and encourage the stereotype that women, and racialized ones in particular, are not well-suited for leadership. If women leaders fail, they’re not given the same future opportunities men are, who often benefit from “failing up.”

Case in point: Adam Neumann, the infamous co-founder and CEO of WeWork. Neumann recently secured about US$350 million of funding for his new real estate start-up, Flow, valuing the company at more than US$1 billion before it even launches. This money came in despite the fact that under his leadership, WeWork imploded. When women CEOs fall, the response is very different; they don’t often get the second chances graciously bestowed on their men counterparts. The ability to even start a company is more challenging for women and minorities as they rarely get the support they need to succeed. In 2021, women tech founders raised just 2 per cent of venture capital money in the U.S.—the smallest share since 2016. 

We also need to address that when women—founders or not—have children, they face additional barriers. Research shows that mothers are perceived as less competent and committed to their jobs compared to non-mothers and men, which can result in lower salaries and a lower chance of promotion. 

Discrimination goes beyond grey 

One of the most common forms of gender discrimination is what’s called “lookism,” the idea that an individual can be discriminated against (or favoured) based on their appearance. This manifests in various forms, including ageism, and is worse for racialized women.

Black women in particular continually experience discrimination for kinky or curly hair, grey or not. A 2020 study out of Michigan State University and Duke University found that Black women with natural hairstyles were perceived to be less professional and competent, and were less likely to be recommended for a job interview than Black women with straightened hairstyles and white women. This is such a problem that California created a law that bans discrimination against natural hairstyles.

And for the record, Black Canadian women and girls have experienced hair discrimination (and still do). Arisa Cox, TV presenter and former host of Big Brother Canada, said she faced hair discrimination while working in media and felt pressure to straighten her hair several times in her career. Where is the campaign to address this ongoing situation? 

Workplaces need to do the work 

After the selfies get posted, the news coverage fades and women continue to experience discrimination in the workplace, how can organizations take the initiative to actually spark change? As part of Dove’s grey campaign, it donated $100,000 to Catalyst, a non-profit that supports women in the workplace. That was a seemingly positive move and takes a step beyond an of-the-moment social media campaign. But it isn’t enough; workplaces need to turn inward. Unilever, the parent company of Dove, has only three women listed on its executive team of 13. Wendy’s has two women listed on its eight-person senior leadership team. 

Erica Ifill, co-founder of Ottawa-based Not in My Colour, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting agency, says workplaces need to get a snapshot of what their teams look like, and make meaningful change using a range of benchmarks outside of just number targets to achieve better gender and racial equity. 

Workplaces need to strategically make plans to diversify their teams by engaging in outreach efforts, creating mentorship programs for underrepresented groups and revamping hiring processes to ensure they are truly equitable. For existing teams, research shows that workplace bystander intervention training helps employees step in when they see instances of bias and discrimination happening. “Real change takes years to happen,” Ifill says. “It has to be a continuous process.”