If you're a female entrepreneur or successful businesswoman, how would you like your accomplishments to be celebrated? Chances are, whatever your answer, it wouldn't be: with a special perfume for you to spray on money. But female entrepreneurs in Kazakhstan are doing exactly that.

It began with an ad campaign, in celebration of International Women's Day on March 8, produced by the Kazakhstani bank Forte Bank. The bank's ad for its fragrance Forte Femme looks a lot like the perfume ads we've all come to know.

The difference is the women in the ad, all talking about their accomplishments and ambitions, are successful female entrepreneurs and business executives. Forte Bank sent its fragrance to 2,000 such women in Kazakhstan, encouraging them to spray the fragrance on their cash and then put it into circulation so the scented bills would spread around the country. And they have. According to AdAge, "a huge number of people have noticed the smell." The bank has sent 500 more bottles of the perfume to its clients as well--apparently the promotion was a success. The bank also distributed pink cash-register tape to raise awareness of the campaign.

Perfume and pink cash-register tape? If you're an American female business leader, you might find that kind of insulting. Or at least an indication the bank, and perhaps your male colleagues, don't take you or your work very seriously. But at least according to one bank executive, this is the right approach for Kazakhstan where women's place in the economy isn't even considered a fit topic of conversation. According to MediaPost reporter Tanya Gazdik:

"Discussing women's rights is deemed inappropriate in Kazakhstani society, as is a woman's desire to study or work. Yet, nearly nine million Kazakhstan women account for 40 percent of the country's GDP. Forty-three percent of all Kazakhstan's small and medium-size businesses are operated by women, and 52 percent of the country's sole proprietors are female, according to Damu Entrepreneurship Development Fund."

The bank's promotion is simply a way to make people aware of women's contributions to the economy while avoiding those difficult conversations. If you find yourself with a scented 1,000 tenge bill (the local currency), you know a female business leader put it there. You may not want to talk about her, but you can't keep pretending she doesn't exist.

It's easy for Americans to look at stories like this and feel superior. After all, there's no taboo for us to publicly discuss our careers. And whereas the women in the ad all stress  they want to take care of their business and the nation's economy in addition to caring for their families and homes, American women have at least raised the issue of equal division of housework and parenting duties, even if studies show we're far from actually achieving it.

And yet. Last night, I happened to watch a Mary Tyler Moore Show episode from the 1970s in which Mary, who has the producer title, insists on actually producing her show. Sue Ann, a snide character, quips "I'm proud that you haven't been disheartened by those who murmur that you've sacrificed your femininity to your ambitions." And while it turns out Sue Ann is the only one to murmur that, the idea that business success or political power is un-feminine remains in our psyche today.

Just consider the fact that so many female business leaders and political figures today are blonde, whether they were born that way. The surprising reason is that both women and men perceive blonde women as more feminine--and less intelligent--than dark-haired ones. So if you're, say, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, you can soften the perception that your power makes you unfeminine, and therefore unlikable, if your hair is blonde.

Or consider one of the ultimate disadvantages all women in power or in the public eye share--they always have to look picture-perfect. I never really thought about this until I read Michelle Obama's new memoir in which she described having to rise hours earlier than her husband if both were to appear at the same event, so there would be time for her hair-and-makeup team to properly style her beforehand. It seems absurd to think that Theresa May has to worry about getting properly styled at the same time she's struggling to prevent Brexit from turning into even more of a disaster. And yet look at any picture of her and you won't find a hair out of place. Even recently, when she was carrying on with Parliamentary debate in a croaking voice while suffering from the flu.

Things like Forte Bank's perfumed money and pink cash-register tape promotion can make it easy for us Western women in business to feel superior. But we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet. We still have a long way to go.

Published on: Mar 16, 2019
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