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Opinion

Gender Treatment Within the Influencer Marketing Industry – Are We Fairer than Others?

This is a man’s world, still?! This is the year 2021, and despite decades of battling for equal rights and the progress made, gender is still as hot a topic today as it ever was. Unequal gender treatment is a problem that plagues almost every nation and industry around the world – though some more than others.

A recent documentary on the gender-based pay gap, ‘Explained’, sheds some light on what’s behind the fact that female professionals on average still earn less than their male counterparts for doing the same work. It seems that the prospect of having children is the number one factor wrongfully condemning women to a lower remuneration and often even a loss of career opportunities in comparison to men. But this is not the only area where women face more challenges than men. Sexism, stereotyping, the list goes on. But not all is gloomy, however. Let’s have a look at gender treatment specifically within the influencer marketing world.    

Masculinisation of the industry and the gender pay gap  

“Did you know that the IT industry was predominantly a female business in Switzerland before it became popular and men took over in the seventies and eighties?”, says Anja Lapcevic, Chief Influence Officer at Kingfluencers. When computer technology was in its infancy from the forties to the sixties, programming was not a respected career path, employees were underpaid, and the profession lacked social prestige. Programming was seen as similar to following a recipe. In other words, a computer scientist was typically a female profession. 

But then something happened to the profession: it became important. From the seventies onward, the digitisation of various areas of work increased steadily. By the nineties, the microcomputer was ubiquitous in both work and private life. People who could program were increasingly in demand, their wages rose, and prestige and influence increased. In other words: Computer scientists became a typically ‘male profession’. Today, the percentage of women in IT in technical positions – excluding support, HR, and marketing – is actually less than 15% in Europe and female IT professionals generally earn less than their male counterparts.

We have seen something similar happen in the influencer marketing industry – but only to some extent. Although influencer marketing can be traced back all the way to the 1930s, of course not in the capacity that it exists now, just imagine ancient Rome when gladiators endorsed products. However, the real rise of influencer marketing started in 2010 with the launch and success of Instagram. It started as a very female-dominated business at first. As it grew more and more popular male celebrities, as well as non-celebrities, started pouring into the profession. 

Currently, the top 10 of the world’s best-paid influencers are a mix of male and female social media stars, but it needs to be noted that according to most rankings the top two are male – being Dwayne Johnson and Cristiano Ronaldo. But women like Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande, and Selena Gomez are following them very closely and in some rankings even overtake Dwayne and Cristiano. Is there also a pay gap? Our analysis says; no. When having a closer look at the rankings we can see that there are still more female influencers at the top than male influencers, and furthermore, the earnings they make per post are quite similar per level. So it is fair to say that the typical gender pay gap that we see in the economy as a whole does not really apply here. 

Two Swiss influencers (husband and wife) Fabio Zerzuben and Frieda Hodel state; “In Switzerland, there are still considerably more female influencers. And based on the rates we both receive and what we know fellow influencers earn we are confident that the industry is fair and both genders are remunerated equally and fairly.” 

An analysis of thousands of Swiss influencer campaign fees between 2016 and today by Swiss social media and influencer marketing agency, Kingfluencers, generally supports this conclusion and even indicates that in Switzerland female influencers are still slightly better paid, whereas internationally the tendency is slightly in the other direction. Anja states that the solution is to remunerate influencers on performance rather than gender or other features.

Is TikTok breaking the pattern, or confirming it?

Since 2018, the social media landscape has been shaken up by the tremendous popularity and growth of TikTok – the video-based social media platform that puts the user, creativity, and authenticity at its core. For many consecutive months now, TikTok has been the most downloaded mobile app, already counting over two billion users and almost 700 million daily active users globally. 

Some experts in the industry note that whereas Instagram-based influencer activity has been, and still is, predominantly female, the opposite seems to be true for TikTok. Globally, the tendency seems that the TikTok influencer business is becoming somewhat male-dominated now that both influencer marketing and TikTok are hot. This begs the question: Is this history repeating itself? Whereas a decade ago female influencers could take the lead and dominate in a largely unknown and not-yet-popular field, do we see the opposite on TikTok with males overshadowing females because nowadays there is a certain prestige to being a TikTok influencer? 

Taking it seriously, seriously! 

Stereotypes are stubborn buggers. We all face them every day and society is riddled with them. Speaking to influencers, brands, and influencer expert Anja Lapcevic, we see that this is one shadow the influencer industry is still unable to fully step out of. As the industry saw an influx of more and more male influencers there is very often somewhat of a split between the types of products and campaigns female and male influencers are being cast for. Whereas more serious topics or humor have been rather associated with male influencers, female influencers have been more linked to sectors such as beauty, fashion, homecare, and family. 

In Switzerland, we think of the example of Zeki, one of the biggest Swiss influencers, who started off as a faceless influencer under the name Swissmeme. Zeki became wildly popular once he stepped out of animosity. The question is sometimes asked: Would a female influencer have been able to do the same? Opinions are divided, yet there are optimistic voices around. 

Fabio and Frieda for example state that they believe that “today it is no longer about gender as much as it used to be, but about the content you produce. When women are no longer afraid to take the spotlight, even in areas that they would traditionally be male-oriented, then they can be just as successful as any man.” 

But not just female influencers face the negative effects of stereotypes. According to Fabio, his wife Frieda gets significantly more requests for family-related or so-called mom-fluencer content. Even though Fabio knows his community highly appreciates and is very reactive to dad-fluencer content, brands most often tend to cast women when the target audience is parents. But as the new generation of consumers increasingly adhere to brands that live up to a mindset and ideal of equality, versatility, and diversity, brands are advised to refrain from thinking in narrow boxes.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

Speaking of stereotyping and unequal treatment, one of the main issues that the industry still faces is sexism and disrespect, or even harassment. Online bullying, harassment and even stalking is a huge problem, especially for women and female influencers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in six women and one in 17 men in the US have experienced stalking and cyberstalking. This means women have a three times higher chance of being faced with these horrors. 

For influencers, this gender-based bullying gap is said to be even worse than for the general population. Furthermore, this issue has gotten worse during the pandemic with many influencers stating that the intensity and frequency of hate messages and comments have exploded. 

“The harassment has gotten worse, 100 percent, since lockdowns began,” Erim Kaur, a lifestyle and beauty influencer, told NBC News. “People call me ugly, fat, fake. They say all sorts of horrible things about me and my family and threaten us, and you feel powerlessness against it because they keep making new accounts.” 

Organisations like the Conscious Influence Hub have often focused on the question of guiding responsible influencer behaviors online, yet an equally relevant question is: What about the education of the general public and how they treat influencers and especially female ones? Fabio and Frieda concur, stating that Frieda gets a lot more sexually tinted, and even inappropriate or disrespectful messages than Fabio. 

Flexibility and maternity, turning tables? 

Let’s finish with what is potentially some good news for female influencers. Surely everyone working in the field of influencer marketing has at one point been questioned as to whether influencing is a real job. The answer is unambiguously yes, although, for the majority of influencers, it is not their primary job but rather a part-time occupation. Independent of whether it is a person’s main occupation or not, influencer work is usually registered as self-employment. That means that self-employment labor rules and legislation applies. 

In most countries, a self-employed person enjoys fewer social security benefits than employees. This does not mean however that as an influencer you have no ways to protect yourself and get covered for the impact of crucial life events such as becoming a parent. In most countries, the self-employed can get insurance coverage that provides them with the same benefits traditional employees enjoy. 

Sure, being self-employed comes with perks of its own such as increased flexibility, but it also carries a responsibility. As much as that responsibility is largely gender-neutral – especially as women and men start dividend household work more and more in younger families. When it comes to maternity benefits, the rules can differ significantly between male and female self-employed workers. In quite a few countries, the rules tend to benefit women. 

In Switzerland, for example, women receive up to 14 or 16 weeks of maternity leave – depending on the canton – and get 80% of their salary paid if they were previously employed or self-employed. The fathers only get up to two weeks of paid paternity leave. But after carrying the baby, certainly, we can agree that some difference in the advantage of women seems only fair. Countries like the US also offer worse conditions for fathers of newborns than for mothers. Family protection laws differ from country to country however and drawing a global conclusion is therefore tough.

To sum up, the influencer marketing industry overall seems quite fair when it comes to gender treatment, although there are some red flags that should be addressed, most notably with regards to sexism, online bullying or harassment, and stereotyping. 

At the same time, we see that the industry shows fewer signs of being unfair than others in areas such as wage equality while showing little difference when it comes to maternity benefits. If anything, mom-fluencers can benefit from their status as a mother gaining additional contracts for family-oriented campaigns and brands.

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