The story of ’Herstory’ starts and ends at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
Margaret Johnson, the agency’s chief creative officer, had launched Daughters of the Evolution as a side project in 2017 after searching for a platform to empower future female leaders. She and her board had become pros at hosting mother-daughter talks and events, but by 2018 were growing itchy for more direct action.
Rather than talking about the gender inequality in leadership, Johnson wanted to have a go at solving it.
Luckily, she had her own agency to turn to. Associate creative director Ricardo Uribe and head of brand strategy Bonnie Wan led a group of creatives tasked with developing a fresh solution to gender inequality. But first, they had to establish where exactly the ideals of equitable female leadership begin to falter in a young woman’s experience.
“As we started to study this situation, we realized that by the time she enters the workforce, it’s already too late,” says Wan. “Deeply embedded in her identity is the sense that she will make less, that she should dream of less and should expect less in the workforce. And we found that it’s at middle school in the US – that preteen/teen cusp – that girls start to understand there’s a world bigger than them out there, and start to look around at messages that influence how big they can dream.”
The critical insight for Goodby was ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. It’s a phrase generally banded around the advertising industry in reference to the number of women on boards and in leadership positions. When applied to middle school kids, it’s about the people they’re taught about in class: those who shaped life as we know it today and who they read about in their history textbooks.
American history textbooks happen to be dominated by men. In fact, women’s stories account for only 11% of the stories told in said tomes.
Goodby determined this as its tangible problem to rectify. But the textbook discourse in the US is stubbornly unbending to new ideas and attitudes.
“We found out that it’s almost impossible to change the textbooks,” says Uribe. “You need to reach a lot of people in order to change one single book, and every state is different.”
“So, Ricardo’s team asked, ‘well, how do we hack education?’” continues Wan. “‘How do we use technology to shortcut the bureaucracy and the red tape?’ And that’s where the idea started to come together.”
The agency chose to use augmented reality as its hacking apparatus; Uribe’s team had been eager to do something creative with the tech for a while and the simplicity of its use case meant it didn’t require too complex a build. In ‘Herstory’, children and teachers use their smartphones to scan a male portrait in history textbooks to unlock information about a woman who changed history at the same time. And in contrast to the fusty, black and white pictures in the textbook, Herstory’s imagery features colorful illustrations accompanied by snackable facts.
But researching and writing this copy wasn’t so easy. When the agency first began collating tales of underreported, powerful women, it managed to produce a list of around 100. Wan was pleasantly surprised, noting that while many assume women have been left out of textbooks because they were largely confined to the home, “when you actually dive deep into history, you realize this was a curation choice”.
But when the initial list was presented to feminist historian Kate Schatz, she pointed out one problem: the vast majority of the project’s women were white.
“If you want to try to find a story about an Asian American woman or a Latin American woman or an African American woman, it’s harder because there’s not enough material [written about them],” says Uribe. “So Kate helped us a lot with that – finding the right balance and correcting the stories.”
The creative’s second challenge came in the form of writing copy for an audience much younger than he is used to communicating with.
“We write for advertising – we’re always trying to be compelling or trying to find a joke,” Uribe explains. “But this time we wrote everything in first person – like every single woman is talking to each kid. It was fun to try to get in their shoes and write the stories – but of course, Kate helped a lot with that too.”
Once the app was finished, Johnson and Goodby found the biggest possible platform to launch it from: SXSW festival in Austin. Its 2019 debut resonated with a variety of publications, including Fast Company and Forbes. But it was the educational press and blogosphere that Uribe was proudest to reach. The app gained traction across schools in America thanks to this coverage and word-of-mouth.
“Within the first month, we had teachers in seven states using it,” says Wan. “They were just so enthusiastic because they’re always struggling with how to engage students in new ways, and they feel really handicapped by the materials and the tools that they’re given.
“The fact that this was a free tool that they could use to bring technology into their classrooms in a really productive way was so beneficial.”
Daughters of the Evolution and its creative team are now setting their sights on other educational touchpoints that men have historically dominated. These include “museums, galleries and monuments” – tangible places of learning that are ripe for an AR feminist upgrade.
“Of course, if we had a ton of funding and a big company or a VC that wanted to back the rollout of this, we would,” says Wan. “But I think the main idea is to be a model for what technology can do, and how it can move education forward.”
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