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Women are the Mother Lode
What They Didn’t Teach You in Business School
If the consumer economy had a sex, it would be female.
If the business world had a sex, it would be male.
And therein lies the pickle.
New research shows that male and female brains are so different that it’s almost as if we’re each living in our own gender-specific realities. You may already have suspected this—perhaps since kindergarten—but the implications for businesses are just beginning to be understood, and they are nothing short of revelatory.
Women are the driving force of the global economy, and men drive the majority of senior-level business decisions. Which means that men are usually the people who have the final say in designing and approving products that are aimed at women; developing marketing campaigns that target women; creating retail environments to attract women; and setting up sales training programs that motivate women to say, “I’ll take it.”
Yet when profit goals aren’t met, when products aren’t moving, or when marketing isn’t working, it rarely occurs to executives that sex might be the problem. Not sex the verb, but sex the noun. Instead of thinking, Perhaps we just don’t understand our female customers, people will tell themselves that the media mix wasn’t right, or the distribution strategy didn’t work, or the agency didn’t do its job. But there is another possibility: that one sex is making its purchasing decisions differently, in a way the other just can’t see.
There are some obvious reasons this can happen. From the moment we’re born, gender identity is a crucial part of our personality development. Masculinity itself is often defined as that which is not feminine.1 From the time they’re young, boys learn to reject or repress all things feminine to be accepted by their peers and society at large, which is just one reason you don’t see a lot of six-year-old boys wearing frilly, pink outfits to soccer practice.2 Throughout their childhoods, boys are under pressure to prove their masculinity by shunning or even mocking feminine traits. The penalty for being viewed as even removely feminine is to risk being humiliated or ostracized for being a “sissy.”
Then when they grow up, many men find themselves graduating from college (and some from the über-masculine world of fraternity culture) and entering jobs in which their paycheck suddenly depends on understanding, identifying with, and selling things to women. Fresh out of business school and poof, they’re a junior brand manager on a dia-per product. Once on the job, few executives of either sex get any kind of formal training on gender differences. They are just expected to informally “pick up” this knowledge through colleagues and vendors. For many people in these positions, achieving success has historically involved some trial and error, lots of smarts, and just enough consumer research to be dangerous. But in a era where businesses are struggling and every sale counts, that old formula isn’t enough anymore. Now, most consumer-driven companies must mas?ter female psychology to survive, because when it comes to consumer spending, women are the sex determining their fortunes. Just when executives have mastered becoming tech literate, they find there’s another skill they need to keep up: becoming female literate. It’s a subject that can seem overwhelming when you stop and think about it. How well can the sexes ever really understand each other? The fact that we don’t—and that we often want different things from life—is what drives sitcoms and drama plots the world over. It’s the foundation of everything from Shakespeare’s plays to my husband’s insistence on setting our alarm clock to his favorite Rush song (Limelight) every morning, just to playfully torture me. Ask any woman you know: Geddy Lee’s wailing falsetto is a guy thing. Mutual incomprehension between the sexes is one of the most maddening and delightful aspects of life. But there’s no room for it in business.
We don’t check our biology at the door when we walk into work every morning, so the challenges we have in understanding and interpreting the opposite sex in our personal lives can spill over to work without our realizing it. To plumb the depths of the gender gap for this book, I’ve talked to dozens of executives of both sexes, across industries. For better or worse, their stories are similar.
“The things that interest women are so strange to me,” explains one male senior sales executive. “For instance, I got a new suit and wore it to the office the other day. When I got home, the first thing my wife asked me was, ‘Did anyone comment on your new suit?’ It was such a crazy question, ?because of course no one commented—I work with a bunch of guys, and nobody would ever care about my clothes, let alone say anything about them. I’m constantly mysti-fied that my wife and her friends notice everything about everything—what other people wear and how they look, or whether they’ve gotten a new haircut or lost weight. Every time we go to someone’s house, my wife will notice a new piece of furniture or a new picture on the wall. And when she brings it up to me, I usually have no idea what she’s talking about, because I would never notice—or care.”
It’s easy to see how this example of the gender gap could impact a business. Been to a Sears lately? The out-of-date decor, peeling paint, and drab fixtures are just a few of the things keeping female customers away from the once-mighty retailer, which stubbornly refuses to update its stores, and has seen its stock price and market share diminish as a result. Women may notice things about your products, marketing campaigns, or sales environment that they dislike, and these are the very things that can escape the attention of management entirely or be viewed as too inconsequential to invest in. Is it common sense to take women’s responses seriously? You would think so. But men and women look at the world through different filters.
If women consumers are important to your business, the path to increased revenues is to listen to them long enough to hear what they have to say. Some men have told me this isn’t always easy.
“When I’m around groups of women, I genuinely find it hard to listen to them for very long,” confesses a male CEO, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I try, but I’m just not interested in talking about other people, or discussing who’s having marital issues, or hearing about someone’s emotional problems. I either leave the room or tune them out, which is something I learned to do when I was about twelve years old, growing up with sisters. My refuge was to head to the garage and build go-carts. Now I keep a pool table downstairs instead. At work, I find it hard to listen to research about women consumers for the same reason. You have to wade through so much stuff to get to the root of things. All I want to know is, ‘What’s the issue?’ Then I can address it with a solution, get the results, and move on. But it’s not easy to discover what women want, and sometimes I think we take shortcuts.”
In interviews, I heard this same opinion expressed, in slightly different ways, from all kinds of businessmen. Men tend to think that women talk about nothing, when the reality is they talk about everything. I feel compelled at this juncture to acknowledge that women are often just as uninterested in, or confounded by, some of the topics of men’s conversations—fantasy football, anyone?—but since it’s women who dominate consumer spending, and women who determine the fortunes of so many companies, then it is women who must be understood.
It doesn’t require a leap of imagination to think that if some men find it difficult to tune in to the conversations of women in their personal lives—the ones they know and love—they will have the same issue at work when it comes to hearing the drives and emotional aspirations of their female customers. The innate desire of most men to avoid discussions about messy, emotional female “stuff” is what leads to shortcuts in business strategies targeting women (such as paint?ing products pink with the presumption that it’s female catnip) and the continued use of stereotypes in advertising, because it’s simply easier to go those routes than to wade deeply into the female mind.
Here’s the headline: if you think women’s conversations are trivial, it’s time to get over it, especially if you want your business to survive through a tough economy. Within the rich details of women’s conversations are the road maps to what they need and want—and, ultimately, to increased profitability for your business. Women will tell you—indeed, probably have already told you—everything you need to know about how to run a business that appeals to them, but too often executives are tuned out or only listening for what they want to hear.
Take the story of two guys we’ll call Trey and Steve. They’re a couple of twenty-something agency creatives whose company recently won a piece of canned-food business. Trey and Steve have been assigned to come up with a new campaign targeting mothers of young children. Their strategy is to shake up the category by positioning their client’s product as the hippest thing to hit canned food in years. They believe the product can be transformed by their creative powers into something aspirational. And while they would never admit it to their client, part of their strategy is driven by the thought, If we have to work on canned food, then at least we’re going to make it cool, damn it.
The only problem is that Trey and Steve don’t know anything about what drives the purchasing decisions of mothers, and quite frankly, they’re not that interested. On the surface they are, but they have no real desire to go deep, because they already have their own ideas about what’s cool, and being a mom isn’t one of them. Trey and Steve’s creative “war room” is full of ripped-out magazine pictures depicting their target consumer, and without exception, the mothers in the photos look like the kind of “hot” women Trey and Steve would like to date.
From the Hardcover edition.