THURSDAY 10 NOV 2016 2:29 PM


Once upon a time, there were five little girls. They grew up and joined a musical group that espoused the late ’90s enthusiasm for ‘girl power.’ This year, 20 years after ‘Wannabe’ was released, brand storytelling agency Aesop asked if girl power was still powerful. The event, held on the International Day of the Girl, looked at girl power in its modern manifestation – through the lenses of sport, technology and social activism.

Andrew Wallis and Justine Currell from the UK charity Unseen discussed the institution of the Modern Slavery Act – requiring all businesses with over 30,000 employees to include a transparency statement about human rights in their annual reports – and the nature of slavery today. Currell said the organisation works with businesses to ensure they fulfill their regulatory obligations and go beyond that to truly rout out potential slavery within their organisations. The organisation also encourages social activism to raise awareness of the 46m people around the world in situations of slavery – 80% of whom are women.

Following their presentation, the conversation shifted to technology where a new brand, Chiaro, is making waves in the tech market. With products geared towards female health and wellbeing, Tania Boler, co-founder of Chiaro, could have easily gone down the ‘make the product pink’ route to appeal to women. Instead, the Chiaro brand challenges the assumptions of women’s use of technology through a modern tone of voice, clean visual identity and associations with lifestyle imagery. “You have to have education, you have to change the conversation,” Boler says of the way technology is positioned for women. She aims to change the way women think about their bodies, a viewpoint espoused by the brand’s empowering and positive tone of voice.

Girl power was discussed in the realm of sport. Britain was overwhelmed last year by Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign which drastically changed the way women who do sport are perceived, while also changing the perception women have of themselves as athletes. “There is a huge gender gap in sports participation,” CEO of Sport England Jennie Price says. Despite the increase in regular activity per week at the grassroots level post-London 2012, most newcomers to sport were men.

For women, sport to some extent still involves, “The stuff that we don’t like to talk about,” says Price; things like being sweaty, uncomfortable, new to a situation. The campaign was a massive success leading to the hashtag #thisgirlcan trending at number two on Twitter, nationwide, and 261,000 new women doing sport on a regular basis. Crucially, there was an increase in women who said ‘exercise is for me,’ following the campaign. “Nobody has the right to judge you,” says Price, and This Girl Can aimed to shape the way women perceived exercise as something empowering. Girl power indeed.

Finally, Team GB gold medallist and field hockey player Susannah Townsend talked about her sporting background, growing up in a family of boys and the success of the hockey team at the Rio Olympics. Though Townsend says sport was always accessible for her as a young girl, for many, she says, sport is still something only for the boys. But, she asks, “Has sport changed for women as a whole? Yes. We’re at an exciting time for women’s sport because girls want to play.”

Girl power became a buzzword in the 1990s, but its manifestation still extends across popular culture from sport participation to government schemes to technology to social activism. Though there is still much to be done, the Spice Girls should be proud of how far the movement they sparked has come.