Why Most Marketers (Continue to) Get Gender So Wrong

Women's Gender Roles Have Changed, But You'd Never Know It

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Why do marketers continue to get gender wrong? While many women's gender roles have changed in the past 50 years, you would never know it from the types of ad appeals and product innovations companies are rolling out in order to capture the lucrative women's market.

My work on motherhood in particular has uncovered several difficult truths about women and the marketplace. Impending motherhood is a liminal state between identities where consumers are particularly vulnerable. Yet, marketers continue to market goods and services to these new mothers using fear appeals. What new mother will choose the cheaper, less-safe child car seat?

This multibillion-dollar industry feeds off the fears of new parents with buzzwords such as "safety," "security" and "protection." Yet fear is only one way in which marketers appeal to women. Marketers use self-esteem, motivation and values to appeal to all consumers. But it is women who are more negatively impacted by these appeals, as evidenced by the disproportionate amount of self-esteem-related conditions, such as eating disorders and getting excessive plastic surgery.

Honda caught heat for its pink-washed Misfit.
Honda caught heat for its pink-washed Misfit.

Three recent examples show that marketers continue to get gender-based targeting wrong. Honda recently revealed a pink car with special window tinting to combat wrinkles. Bic released Pens for Her, which were subsequently skewered by Ellen DeGeneres and clever commenters on Amazon. And an amazing array of Halloween costumes are themed for men and women, with the female version being "slutty" or "sexy," everything from professional themes such as "sexy police officer" to the more obscure themes such as "sexy banana."

There are many theories as to why marketers continue to get gender wrong. Pat Flynn -- a trustee professor of economics and management at Bentley University and an expert on women and business -- and her team would probably argue it's because of the lack of women on corporate boards and the C-suite. Other scholars would point to the patriarchal nature of capitalism.

I have another theory: ignorance.

First, marketers are constantly conflating the separate constructs of sex, gender and sexuality. They assume female means feminine means heterosexual or male means masculine means heterosexual. They assume all women are feminine and would like a pink car. They assume women's hands are daintier and would need an anatomically correct pen, and they assume women want to dress up as slutty versions of virtually anything for Halloween.

Second, marketers continue to drop gender stereotypes into ads because they fail to see that these stereotypes are, by and large, outdated and untrue (if they ever were true). While there are women who prefer pink, and it has become the official color of breast cancer, the NFL has since created more realistic jerseys for its female clientele.

Third, marketers are ignorant about the diversity of preferences among women because they have long used male and female as catchall categories for segmentation. While fashion marketers have further segmented the consumer using additional demographic categories, such as age and income, other industries have not followed suit. The automobile industry habitually misfires when it tries to use sex as a demographic category, but does much better when it uses lifestyle and social-class classifications.

The gender gap in the recent election, particularly among unmarried women, demonstrates that marketers aren't the only ones getting gender wrong. To stay relevant, marketers, along with political parties, must learn to adapt to modern female consumer/citizens, whose wants and needs reflect a new set of gender roles.

Susan Dobscha is an associate professor of marketing at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.
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