To mark the month of International Women's Day, the Business and Society blog will spend March getting to know some of the School of Management's female academics. Lorna Stevens is an Associate Professor who focuses on gender issues and feminist perspectives in marketing and consumer behaviour. We sat down with her to talk about her latest projects, the value of her collaborative relationships, and the art of writing persuasively.
Can you explain what your current role is, and what was the path that brought you to it?
I'm a senior lecturer, or Associate Professor in Marketing. I’m also the subject lead for the marketing group within the MBS division. I came into academia after working in the publishing industry for over 10 years, in Belfast, in Dublin, and London. Whilst I was working for Virago press – a fabulous women’s press in London - as a junior editor, I realised that the people in the marketing department seemed to be having more fun! There's a limit to how much excitement that you could get from proofreading, whereas the marketing team were working very closely with authors to publicise new titles, doing really varied work. So, the interest was born, and that led to my decision to do a Master’s in Marketing at the University of Ulster.
After that, I took a job at Ulster as a Research Assistant working with the Professor of Marketing. This experience was really formative and has impacted the rest of my career because working on that project was a woman called Pauline McLaren. She had also just joined academia from industry. We became great friends and started writing together while we were still in our research posts. We then both decided to do PhDs – we got bitten by the bug. So, we started our academic careers together, and in fact still work together. We really inspire one another, in terms of the sort of research we do.
Can you tell us little bit about your current research interests and recent work?
Most of my research looks at issues from a feminist perspective or explores the gender implications. That viewpoint tends to inform most of what I write, even if it’s not always the focus. I'm interested in people's emotions and feelings and embodied experiences, and it just so happens those people are normally women!
I did my PhD on women's experiential consumption of magazines. I’ve been interested in the relationship between women’s culture, consumer behaviour and media consumption in general since I worked for Virago press. I quickly realised given my Arty background that I was a qualitative researcher – and that this gave me opportunities to write in a creative, fun way. So, from the outset my goal has been to explore women's experience of popular culture or consumer culture and write about it in an engaging way.
My current projects take me right back to my early interests. My very first publication with Pauline McLaren in the late 90s was a conference paper looking at marketing and feminism. We looked at the marketing discipline as being very patriarchal and sexist and explored what marketing would look like if we introduced a feminist perspective. This conference paper resulted in a book ‘Marketing and Feminism’ and a special issue in a marketing journal. Fast forward 21 years after having published this first volume, and Pauline and I are now working on Volume Two. It's looking at many of the same issues that we examined previously but obviously there are a lot of new aspects that we've incorporated. Feminism has moved on. Many young women have discovered feminism, so there's a whole new generation bringing a new perspective – dealing with many of the same issues, but perhaps in a different context and on different platforms. This latest volume, I hope, captures some of those changes. The major new dimensions to consider are intersectionality and new technology. Probably the most significant change in the field in the past two decades is the power of social media - most of the feminist campaigns since 2014 have been conducted online.
I also have another exciting project going on, a book called ‘Bewitching Consumer Culture: Witchcraft, Feminism and Markets’. It’s written with two of my long-standing collaborators, and we explore the witch figure from a socio cultural and historical perspective. This has also been with me since the beginning of my career. At the time, no one was really talking about the relationship between marketing and feminism so when we started there was a lot of opposition. These ideas really didn’t make us popular, to the extent that my collaborators and I were dubbed the three witches! So, in the conference paper I mentioned earlier, we drew a parallel with witches. We used this metaphor to sort of reclaim the insult - to make clear that this demonisation of women, this misogyny, was our starting point and to show why we needed a feminist perspective in marketing.
Again, fast forward 25 years or so, and we’ve revisited this idea partly because of the resurgence of interest in ‘witchy things’. What it means to be a witch has sort of been reclaimed over time and is now synonymous with empowerment and liberation – the courage to be yourself and not being afraid to go against the grain. It’s become a counter cultural movement. The rise of Wicca, the actual religion of witchcraft, reflects the disillusionment with the way the world is, how we treat nature and so on. People are starting to question the values of contemporary society, and actually choosing to live in an alternative way. In fourth wave feminism this is quite prominent - there’s all kinds of movements like Witches of Instagram, even witches on tiktok. Most of these ‘trends’ are played out online but are also played out in the physical marketplace. So, we are looking at different types of markets - from popular culture, to places where the merchandise associated with witchcraft proliferates. For example, we have a chapter on Glastonbury which is a very important place for Wiccans.
We’ve also looked at attitudes towards older women in the chapter ‘Reclaiming the Crone’ where we explore how the word ‘crone’ is being brought back to its original meaning, of ‘wise old woman’. We have lots of examples of this in contemporary culture of wise, old women who tell it like it is. And they may be reviled or persecuted for their opinion but many of them are actually lauded. If you think of a figure like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she is a great example of the positive representation of the crone where she stands for wisdom and justice.
We also have a chapter on glamour and witchcraft. Glamour literally means bewitchment, so we're looking at that again, in relation to contemporary culture, the sort of relationship between glamour, witchcraft and feminism. It looks at the aesthetics of witchcraft which proliferate in our culture, and particularly amongst this new generation of fourth wave feminists to the witches of Instagram.
I really love this project because it feels like we’re coming full circle in our academic careers. But it’s also so fascinating! Because I do qualitative research, I've only ever done research into things that I'm interested in and that sort of get my creative juices flowing. I believe that research should be enjoyable and that you should be personally engaged and passionate about whatever you’re looking into. That should then come across in your work and how you write.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I'm proud of my consistency. I didn't jump on some bandwagon and then immediately move on to the next cool thing. I’ve always ploughed a particular field, that I felt strongly about. I didn't deliberately select to specialise but I followed my convictions. And I’m proud that my beliefs have stood the test of time. Feminism has come in and out of fashion, so it’s gratifying to me to be considered one of the founders of the field of marketing and feminism in the UK.
Who has been the biggest influence in your career?
My long-time collaborator Pauline. From the start we just really enjoyed working together. We came from similar backgrounds – we were both English literature graduates, we both enjoyed reading and writing, and we were both feminists. So, we kind of bounced off one another. And our writing has developed and improved because of each other - Pauline would say that working with me made her become a more creative and descriptive writer. And I would say that working with Pauline taught me to be a more structured writer.
Another big influence was my Dad. Although he was an economist for all his career, he loved to write. He wrote a lot of poetry, political commentary. And he would read them aloud to me. He was a wordsmith, he loved words, and I inherited that from him.
What do you like best about being an academic?
I consider myself a communicator. I think to be a good academic, you have to be incredibly adept at communication. I realised quite early on in my life that I was good at three things - reading, writing and talking! So, finding myself in an academic career where I get to do all three, was the perfect occupation for me. You get an opportunity to try to convey your enthusiasm for a subject to your audience - whether it's in the classroom, or it's on the page – to try to persuade them of your view. I especially enjoy the latter part – putting together the evidence, crafting an argument and making it as compelling as possible.
What sort of an impact do you hope your work has?
As a feminist researcher, you’re taking a particular standpoint. So, while I don’t flatter myself that I can actually change things with my work, I at least want to draw attention to issues, and highlight inequalities or double standards. I would hope that I can help people question the underlying ideologies of things they see every day – deconstructing an advert to find its meanings, and then challenging those meanings, exposing the assumptions that lie beneath.
We write in the hope that we might just strike a chord with someone. For me one of the most gratifying aspects of the work that I do is when another woman, often a young scholar, not even necessarily an academic, comes to you and says, “I heard you speak at a conference, or I read a paper or an article that you've written, that really made me think and it made me want to pursue that kind of research”. If someone tells me they’ve enjoyed or been affected by something I’ve written, then that’s a huge compliment to me. Because as I’ve said, I don’t think academic writing needs to be heavy. I think it can be enjoyable to read – even if you’re dealing with serious topics you can communicate in an engaging way, even with humour. Ultimately my research – writing in general - is about persuasion. It’s about taking a standpoint and then providing data and convincing your reader that it’s a valid argument – if you can make it come alive for people it’s more accessible and has more impact. I’d say all effective writing is about the art of persuasion.