From Women in the Kitchen to GirlBoss – How Gender Portrayal in Advertising Has Evolved Over the Years


As the 20th century opened, gender roles were strongly influenced by cultural norms and societal expectations. If you take a look at advertising in the media today, it seems that there’s been a complete change from how we used to see gender in ads. From women being portrayed as housewives and mothers to women taking charge and working outside of the home, women have made strides towards equality in terms of gender portrayal in advertising.

Women in particular were expected to stay at home, care for the children, clean the house, cook and make sure that everything ran smoothly for her husband’s comfort. While this seems quite antiquated today, it was much more prevalent in our grandparents’ and even great-grandparents’ generations than it is now. In fact, advertising of the early 1900s reinforced these gender roles in subtle ways through print advertisements, especially those that appeared in magazines or newspapers.

The portrayal of gender in advertising has evolved tremendously since the first advertising campaigns were launched over a century ago. From the Men Working advertisements of the late 19th century to the rampant sexism prevalent today. Here’s how gender portrayal in advertising has evolved through major historical events and movements in America. but still have some way to go before they can be considered equal to men.

What is Gender Portrayal in Advertising?

Gender portrayal in advertising is the way in which men and women are represented in commercials and other forms of marketing. This includes not only the physical appearance of the people in the ad, but also their roles, behaviors, and attitudes. Gender portrayals can have an effect on viewers’ perceptions of gender norms and stereotypes, as well as on their self-concepts. There has been a significant shift in gender portrayals over the years, with more recent ads promoting gender equality while still catering to traditional societal views.

Today we see equal responsibility being shown by both genders in the workplace, and many ads featuring dads doing housework or moms working outside of the home. The depiction of women and girls in the media has become less focused on how they look or what they do for a living, instead highlighting who they are as people.

How Gender Portrayal in Advertising Evolved?

It’s no secret that advertising has been, and continues to be, a male-dominated industry. But that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been any progress when it comes to the portrayal of women in ads. In fact, over the years we’ve seen a significant shift in how women are represented. Let’s take a look at how gender portrayal in advertising has evolved over the years. 

In the early days of advertising, women were mostly portrayed as homemakers or housewives. They were usually cooking, cleaning, and tending to their children. As time went on, however, women started appearing more often in ads for professional products like shampoo and other beauty products. They also started appearing as actors for commercials for items like cars or insurance companies. 

Around 1990, something changed: Suddenly images of women became hypersexualized with focus on their breasts and bottoms. Nowadays this type of portrayal is far less common than before the 1990s but still appears occasionally today (e.g., Dove campaigns).

’30s: Homemakers as Modern Business Woman

In the 1930s, advertisers began to tap into a new target market: homemakers. These women were seen as modern businesswomen, responsible for managing their homes and families. Advertisers portrayed them as capable and competent, using slogans like You can’t be a wallflower when you’re cooking dinner and A woman’s place is in the home… but she doesn’t have to be chained to it.

She wasn’t chained to her kitchen stove anymore because she could afford to hire someone else to do that job for her. Advertisers depicted this new housewife as an independent woman who had accomplished the American Dream. 

Here are some examples of how gender portrayal in advertising has evolved over the years: 

In addition to advertising careers for women, a key shift over time was how men were portrayed. Traditionally, they dominated professions such as CEO and doctor while portraying women as mothers or wives. However, today they are just as likely to be shown in traditionally female-dominated jobs such as dental hygienist or teacher. So while much progress remains to be made, you can see signs of progress all around us!

’40s & ’50s: The Rise of Woman as Working Mothers

40s: Post-War Era: After World War II, post-war era advertisers capitalized on people’s desire for consumer goods with a confident housewife running her household on her own. The invisible woman of the previous decade was now front and center. 

1950s: A Housewife as American Hero 

Women’s role changes drastically: The 1950s ushered in the nuclear family, where mom was solely responsible for cooking, cleaning and caring for children while dad worked outside of the home.

’60s & ’70s: Switching Sides

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was published in 1963, signaling an end to this tradition. 

It prompted women across America to rethink their societal roles. They rebelled against their kitchens and demanded equal rights, resulting in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964, and finally overturning Roe v Wade (1973).

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer was published in 1970 further sparked a movement that pushed women out into the workforce. In 1973, 9% of women were working outside the home; today, nearly 70% are working for pay.

As more and more females entered the workforce, they were often depicted as sexual objects rather than equals. Advertisers like Jantzen Swimwear began depicting models as ‘pretty girls next door’ or ‘daring girls.’ 

’80s-’90s: Back on Track with New Feminist Icons

In 1992 Levi’s released a campaign with photos of male models wearing jeans while female models wore pieces from his line of underwear called Dockers. What these ads say is that women have an interest in men and men have an interest in women, which was revolutionary for its time. 

By portraying females as active participants and not just objects, these ads helped shift cultural norms and redefine what it means to be sexy. Since then, there has been a steady progression towards more progressive gender portrayals in advertising campaigns.

Brands are starting to celebrate femininity without subjugating women. A new wave of strong feminine icons are beginning to emerge in commercials such as Verizon’s recent Supergirl ad featuring Melissa Benoist or Mastercard’s Priceless Surprises spot starring Sarah Jessica Parker promoting their Priceless Surprise Program. 

’00-’10: Changing Times

The early 2000s saw a shift in how women were portrayed in advertising. We started to see more women in positions of power, and ads began to target female empowerment. This was a time of change, and advertisers were starting to take notice of the growing number of women in the workforce. The introduction of personal devices also played a role in shifting our perspective on what women are capable of; while these devices have made it easier for people to stay connected with work outside the office, they’ve also given many working mothers an opportunity to stay connected with their kids while maintaining their careers. 

While these devices have made it easier for people to stay connected with work outside the office, they’ve also given many working mothers an opportunity to stay connected with their kids while maintaining their careers. So why not celebrate that?

Social Media Influences Our Perception of Gender Roles Today, But… Are Things Really Better?

We’ve come a long way from women being portrayed as nothing more than housewives in advertising. Today, we see women as strong, independent business owners and leaders. However, social media has also created unrealistic expectations of what women should look like and how they should behave. While it’s great that we’re seeing more diverse representation of women in advertising, we still have a long way to go. 

One study found that 97% of people featured in advertisements are white and 68% are thin. There is a need for better representation of diversity across race, ethnicity, age, size, gender identity, disability status, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation because these messages have real-life consequences for all of us.

Bottom Line

It’s been a long road from housewife to #GirlBoss, but advertising has come a long way in terms of gender portrayal. These days, we’re seeing more women in leadership roles, more diverse body types, and a wider range of occupations. While there’s still room for improvement, it’s clear that advertising is slowly but surely catching up with the times. 

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Abdul razzaq is a business entrepreneur, freelancer and digital marketer. He believes in spreading mass awareness about changing digital marketing and new trends in e-commerce

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