Felisa H. Batacan, Filipino journalist and crime writer, once wrote: “Some things are better dealt within the cleansing light of transparency and openness rather than in the darkness of secrecy.” Her words resonated with me during last week’s International Women’s Day (#IWD2022).

Posts “celebrating” #IWD2022 exploded across social media. But as the day progressed, my friends, colleagues, and online connections all began expressing a similar frustration: namely, a clear lack of material progress on the core issues of safety, respect, and equity coupled with way too many performative marketing messages masking the reality still facing women everywhere.

It was this frustration that prompted Francesca Lawson, a freelance copywriter from Manchester, England, and her partner Ali Fensome, a software developer, to take real action by creating @PayGapApp.

This simple but effective bot matched companies posting celebratory Twitter stories or promoting #IWD2022-related hashtags and phrases with an open data set to illustrate the company’s gender pay gap information.

The data used is publicly available online as part of the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017, which covers all UK employers with more than 250 staff. These firms are required to publish a comparison of men and women’s average pay across their organisation. Under the scheme, employers are also encouraged to provide a supporting narrative and action plan explaining why a gender pay gap exists and what the firm is doing to address the issue.

In the creators’ own words, the bot was intended to embarrass companies “with their own data” to send “a signal to employers that vague messages of ’empowerment’ aren’t good enough!” Conversely, the bot served as a great promotional tool for those few companies with no gender pay gap.

No doubt many of the organisations called out by the bot have a genuine desire to achieve gender equity, but intent and lofty promises mean nothing without outcomes. Worse, intent can translate into misguided actions that are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, actively harmful to the organisation. For #IWD2022, this meant being called out by the bot for obvious tokenism but also the less obvious problem of overburdening women with the emotional labour involved in formulating and promoting the messages of the companies themselves.

Sadly, the problem was compounded when firms identified by the bot chose not to acknowledge their failings or promote the efforts they were taking in response. Instead, many chose to hide by editing tweets, removing hashtags, or deleting their posts altogether, only to be captured in a thread dedicated to calling them out further, which included agencies within the UK government itself, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs service.

Open data and transparency in and by government is intended to foster fairness, but when organisations attempt to hide in the shadows of platitudes, more trust is lost than gained. The time for brands to turn a blind eye to race and gender equity is long past.

As a brand, build trust in your gender-related messaging by following these simple steps:

  • Act with authenticity, openness, and transparency at all times. Your employees, customers, partners, and society at large are listening. There will be a deep dissatisfaction when there’s a variance between what you are promising and what you are actually delivering. By all means, brag about your gender-related industry scholarships, dazzling diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies, and incredible women in your organisations. At the end of the day, however, actions and outcomes are what matter. Demonstrate real outcomes with transparency by sharing your actual DEI goals, your performance against those goals, and the tangible benefits from those goals.
  • Eliminate unpaid emotional labor. Asking women to solve systemic, biased workplace challenges and then bring cupcakes in to celebrate their efforts can create higher levels of stress, additional workloads, and potentially less time to spend on career-enhancing activities. Some firms have acknowledged the cost of emotional labor — LinkedIn recently announced that it will pay its employee resource group leaders an additional $10,000 per year, and Twitter is following suit. If you feel compelled to celebrate with cupcakes, make sure you spread the load amongst all employees, not only the minorities. Better still, leave the cupcakes at home, and focus on righting the wrongs of the past by executing on your policies.
  • Acknowledge your mistakes with empathy and courage. Even if you were inclined to deal with your gender-related issues in the darkness of secrecy, know that with the availability of open data, you will eventually get caught out. Trust will be built or broken based on how you respond. DEI is a precarious world for many, and we are all learning. The worst thing you can do is try and cover up your mistakes. Instead, acknowledge your error, and demonstrate how you will make it right.

As Lawson said to The Drum when asked about the use of such bots in the future, “I hope it encourages more honesty and transparency from brands on social media, so they’re not using it to take up space in a conversation they haven’t earned.”