The Truth About Canadian Women McCann WorldGroup Canada
Truth about Canadian Women - The Imperfect Portrayal of Women

The Truth About Canadian WomenThe Imperfect POrtrayal of Women

A Truth Central Study from McCann Worldgroup Canada conducted in partnership with Ipsos | 2018


The Truth about Canadian Women is an exploration of the changing conversation around women in Canada today. It’s a deep dive into how women are shaping change, and how this change is shaping everything around us.

Our purpose is to help brands and marketers define their role in this rapidly evolving landscape. We’re providing women and men the opportunity to share how gender affects their state of mind, their life experiences, and ultimately their choices as consumers. With this knowledge, The Truth About Canadian Women will guide businesses to new growth opportunities through a stronger connection with female consumers.

NOTE: While our exploration of gender equality and gender opportunities agrees with the principle that gender is a fluid concept, our data looks at women vs. men as our respondents have self-identified in our survey.

2700 Person Survey

with women and men across all of Canada

2 Consumer Workshops

with Canadian women who are leaders in their own communities, choosing or rejecting your brands every day

40+ Interviews

with leading Canadian marketers and women shaping change in Canada today

Game Changer Dinner Series

with women of influence across Canada’s key cities, tackling one topic at a time.

We are in the midst of a massive change in how we represent women – from the portrayal of a singular ideal to the portrayal of a whole woman. Women are changing the narrative through inclusivity, authenticity and completeness as they take control of their stories and break taboos.

This is the story of how women are systematically taking ownership of the media and the message, refusing to be just receivers. This change is not without challenges, but therein lies the opportunity for brands.

66%of women believe there are too many gender stereotypes in advertising
72%of women believe technology and social media give women a voice

As brands push their content out to the world, these same brands are now being challenged and questioned about their communications. There is no doubt that advertising, marketing and brands still exert tremendous power over mass media. While not much has changed yet in how women are portrayed, this reality is coming to an end. The digital revolution is empowering female creators to bypass the gatekeepers of mass media and create content and communities that reflect a better portrayal of women and their lives.

The message coming from women is that they will no longer accept being reduced to a tired stereotype.

Today, women are self-defining the role marketing plays in their lives and how they want to be portrayed in communication. Increasingly, women are the ones creating their own stories, the ones they want told. It is a new and exciting era of marketing where women are at the forefront of defining their own future.

Alanna McDonald

President, Consumer Products Division

L’Oréal Canada

Only 3 in 10 women can identify with most of the women they see in ads.

Until recently, women have been represented, in the simplest of terms, on a scale of two dimensions: either the nurturing or the sexy norm – or sometimes both.

Over the past decade, we have seen the portrayed list of character types expand from nurturing and sexy to also include strong, funny and self-determined – but full representation has not yet been achieved.



As a woman, if you could give one piece of advice to advertisers and companies about connecting with women, what would it be?

“Understand that there are a multitude of roles women play in society, not just the stereotypical ones. Get a sense of women in different employment positions, women in leadership, even trans-women... and understand that there is a huge spectrum of how and what women identify with.”

57%of women believe there are not enough examples of successful women shown in the media

Delivering the authenticity demanded today is not easy for marketers. We struggle to retire stereotypes that were once considered aspirational. As we enter new territory, marketers are asking themselves: Does authenticity sell? Do our consumers really want to see themselves? Today, programs that showcase exaggerated and unattainable realities like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Bachelor still draw huge audiences but are increasingly being matched by programs with a broader scope of portrayal like Orange is the New Black on Netflix and Baroness Von Sketch Show on CBC.

We believe authentic and aspirational are not mutually exclusive. By embracing an authentic portrayal of women, brands have the opportunity to find a meaningful and aspirational place in their lives.

Today, there is still a very narrow dimension of how women are portrayed and how beauty is defined. No matter their size, women are portrayed as having to be sexy.

Marianne Lauzon

CMO Mackage and Soia & Kyo

APP Group

Women come in all shapes, sizes and skin tones, but until recently, a singular vision of women from brands and marketers has dominated. Today women are rejecting this narrow vision. Not only is it unattainable to most, but chasing this ideal has proved to be detrimental to many. More than ten years ago the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign launched a different kind of conversation about inclusion, diversity and female beauty.

Surprisingly, the beauty industry – the industry that worked so hard to establish the norms – is now thriving by breaking many of those norms. Here we see the real shift from industry-driven to consumer-driven definitions of beauty.

Technology and social media

61% of women believe technology and social media help promote diversity

The demands for more inclusive representation are being met with the rise of niche, independent direct to consumer brands like Glossier. These emerging and inclusive brands are fuelled by consumer platforms such as social media and e-commerce.

Brands like Fenty Beauty that are offering a wide range of skincare for a normally underrepresented demographic are setting the standard for new beauty brands and establishment brands alike. Amongst the biggest beauty brands in the world, L’Oréal Paris has embraced diversity and inclusion with age, race and gender inclusive campaigns that are now central to how the brand defines itself.

Beauty bloggers took to their channels to show under-served segments of women that they too are beautiful. Plus size fashion bloggers are showing that not fitting the traditional beauty mold doesn’t mean you are invisible – in fact it’s quite the opposite.

Representing different body types

58% of Canadians believe younger generations are more open today to different body types

In response, brands have seized the opportunity to be more inclusive of different sizes, not only in advertising campaigns but in their offerings. By acknowledging that plus size women can and do aspire to be fashionable in the skin they are in, a whole new and lucrative revenue stream has emerged in the fashion industry. This has led to much positive sentiment for the brands that have successfully broken the plus size taboo and helped to affect cultural change.

We see the opportunity to be more inclusive in the representation of women in so many ways. Ethnicity, size and body type are just the start. Stretching the boundaries and breaking taboos are what will lead us towards meaningful inclusivity and will go a long way for brands as they continue to build their relationships with women.



As a woman if you could give one piece of advice to advertisers and companies about connecting with women, what would it be?

“Show real women, not ideal women”

There is this whole generation of younger women who aren’t ashamed of their bodies. Who are proud of their bodies. Who feel sexy and confident. I would love to think that we – and others like us – have played a part in that. Because self-confidence is everything.

Roslyn Griner

VP Marketing & Visual Display Addition Elle,


Authenticity and inclusivity are powerful, but not enough if they fail to cover the complete story of women. Incomplete pictures persist, both in how we target and the topics we choose to address. The practice of partial portrayal is not sustainable in today’s environment.

Let’s take the example of the portrayal of motherhood:


37% of women believe ads accurately represent mothers today

Accurate representation, however, can be found from mothers themselves. By the time mommy bloggers like Scary Mommy, Pregnant Chicken and Cup of Jo had captured the attention of marketers and brands, they had already amassed millions of female followers who were seeking entertainment and knowledge from women more like themselves.

What these women offer one another is a more complete and authentic picture of the experience they all share. Mommy bloggers put it all out there – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Women are looking to validate their experience, not the oh-so-perfect vision of motherhood that brands and mass media have been selling for decades.

Achieving a complete portrayal of the woman requires not just portraying the many facets of a target, but broaching subjects formerly left untouched.

Recently, several brave brands have started to address taboo topics associated with being a woman, particularly in the world of menstruation. Knix Wear and Thinx are creating a new category and opening up the understanding of what it means to be a woman and what a woman needs when she is on her period. Knix Wear is on track to take in more than $40 million in revenue this year. Not only are these brands tackling taboos and addressing the complete needs of a woman, but they are building successful businesses.



As a woman, what makes you dislike a brand? Be as specific as possible.

“Shying away from issues such as menstruation”

Once again, technology may be the fuel for change. The norms of when and how we address the body of a woman, from puberty to menopause and beyond, is a growing business in tech. Women are leading the change is this domain, creating products with a female-centric lens and aesthetic to meet the needs of women. Products like Elvie, a connected pelvic floor trainer and Clue, a period tracking app that helps women track the unique patterns of their menstrual cycle, are finding fast fans and proving that women are hungry for technology that caters to their needs and bodies.

The meeting of female scientists and entrepreneurs has resulted in the development of practical products that have led to taboo busting campaigns. The small, but increasing presence of women in science, STEM and venture capital has resulted in FemTech, a new and thriving healthcare vertical estimated at $31 billion U.S*.

Addressing the complete woman means going beyond her appearance to providing her with the tools she needs to lead a healthier life and be an advocate of her own health.

*Source: MaRS, 2018

Mass media is no longer the keeper of the female form and experience.

Mass media is now being taken on by women well beyond the worlds of motherhood, fashion and beauty. From movements like Times Up, and The Getty Images ‘Lean In’ Collection, to inclusion riders and Free the Bid, women are speaking back to mass media about how they want to experience their own representation.

There are three key areas where women are shaping change and brands and businesses have tangible opportunities to play their part:

The demand for authenticity: Authenticity is about so much more than the visual portrayal of women. It goes beyond the physical to the multi-dimensional truth of the female narrative. Demanding authenticity is about rejecting the norm of fitting women into types of characters that lack depth or complexity.

The demand for inclusivity: Women are rejecting a singular ideal and demanding that the faces, bodies and experiences of more than one type of woman be included in the portrayal of women.

The demand for completeness: A partial story is an incomplete story and women are insisting that a more complete narrative is the new norm – including what was once taboo.


In June we met for dinner with an impressive group of senior business women and cultural leaders in Montreal, many directly responsible for the portrayal of women in Canada. Around the table the feeling was unanimous – as women are now increasingly controlling the message and the media, businesses are feeling it.

We discussed how the impact of this change in messaging is even stronger, not just because of the access to new platforms, but because women are working together as one, enabling and supporting each other. There is no doubt that the businesses that are succeeding with women are those that are genuinely listening, engaging with women in a new way and representing them on their terms. Three hours of dinner conversation lead us to a shared sense of responsibility to help shape this change of representation for the women of yesterday, of tomorrow, and for Canada as a whole.

Culture has been thrown up in the air because of the change we’re experiencing and society finds itself in a bit of a no-man’s (woman’s) land. But this is an opportunity for women. We now have a say. This is our chance to shape culture and make it what it could be moving forward.

Grace Yang
Producer and Curator, TEDxMontrealWomen

Now you see women coming together. The support you’re starting to see between women, this sisterhood, is new. There’s been a change in how women portray other women.

Jackie Tardif
President Reitmans at Reitmans Canada Ltd.

In today’s media environment, it’s hard not to notice the ways girls, women and gender nonconforming folks are vocally speaking up about their lives and actively taking up the tools of social media to represent themselves. In the process, some are collectively organizing to make social change too.

Carrie Rentschler
Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar of Feminist Media Studies, McGill University

The Dinner

Ann Bouthillier Chief Communications Officer, Via Rail Roslyn Griner Vice President, Marketing & Visual Display, Addition ELLE Claudine Labelle President & Founder, FitSpirit / Fillactive Alanna McDonald President, Consumer Products Division, L’Oréal Canada Carrie Rentschler Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar of Feminist Media Studies, McGill University Jackie Tardif President, Reitmans at Reitmans Canada Ltd. Sandra Tymchuk Director of Marketing, Bombardier Business Aircraft Élise Vaillancourt Director of Marketing, Quebec & Regional Markets, Home Depot Canada Grace Yang Producer and Curator, TEDxMontrealWomen


Media, once produced by the few and consumed by the masses, is today determined by a limitless number of creators, channels and collective voices of communities, all driving massive change. Brands and marketers are trying to reconcile their own efforts to this new reality where women are moving from being portrayed to drawing the picture. Our roles as brands in this change is to:

Reframe the thinking around representation: How do we begin to understand the multi-dimensionality of a woman and tell the stories we don’t see represented?


Follow the lead of women: Women know what they want and who they want to be. They’re letting us know, so how do we as marketers, brands, and businesses actually listen and respond?


Bravely break the taboo: Pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause may have been taboo in the past, but what if we decide to be fearless in addressing the realities of women’s bodies?


L’Oréal ‘I’m worth it’ campaign

Source: the drum, L’Oréal Paris


Change is coming from the least expected category. Beauty is a space women have always looked to for direction. L’Oréal’s evolution of the ‘I’m worth it’ platform to ‘Because We’re All Worth It,’ makes the beauty industry a more diverse and inclusive one.

Knixwear’s period proof panties

Source: Knix Wear Facebook, Knix Wear


Knix Wear’s very reason for being is to reveal a space that has existed in the shadows: menstruation. The products and campaigns around Knix Wear serve to break the taboos around women’s bodies, and normalize periods.

Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign

Source:, Sport England


Sports participation in the UK suffers from a significant gender gap. Sport England worked from the insight that women identify with the fear of not being “good enough” and turned that negative perception into a positive campaign, “This Girl Can”. As a result of the campaign and its challenge to gender stereotypes, 1.6m women have started exercising and the number of women playing sport and being active is increasing faster than the number of men.

Smash the stereotype

The media landscape and the portrayal of women within is where we see some of the most dramatic changes and some of the most persistent norms in Canada today. Marketers are caught in the middle as they try to keep up with the ever-progressive demands of women, and leave their comfort zone of what has been the expected portrayal of women for decades. Women are truly driving this transformation and are making full use of the tools of influence formerly unavailable to them. In the end, marketers will have the choice to hop on board, or be excluded from the conversation.

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