What brands should know about 'agendered' society

John Lewis: the retailer is taking a gender-neutral approach
John Lewis: the retailer is taking a gender-neutral approach

A less gender-conscious future has significant implications for society, brands and how we work, writes Nicola Kemp.

The lens through which we view the world is being fundamentally shifted. Gender, once the lynchpin of consumer segmentation, is no longer fit for purpose. According to a major new research project created by Havas, The Future is FeMale, which surveyed over 12,000 people in 32 countries, traditional gender distinctions are coming apart at the seams.

The research suggests that the move towards a "FeMale" future is one that is centred on "expanded equality, opportunity and access. For boys and men it is more about freedom; and breaking free from restrictive and oppressive gender norms." According to the report, the shift signals "a move towards a society in which individuality trumps basic biology".

Marian Salzman (right), chairman global collective and chief executive for North America at Havas PR Havas Worldwide, says that marketers need to be aware the rules of engagement are changing. She points to the move of brands such as John Lewis launching gender neutral clothing as the "symptom not the change" of an agendered society. In essence, the demand for consumers for genderless products is already there, but brands have been slow to meet - or in some cases even recognise - this demand.

New horizons

As traditional gender stereotypes continue to blur, the implications and opportunities for the creative industries are substantial. Free from the constraints and prescriptive nature of gender-stereotypes brands could be emboldened to connect with consumers as true individuals. According to Salzman, as a marketer the first question you often ask is "are you male or are you female?" Even when trying to sell a product like toilet paper. "We’ve always been taught to segment by age, stage and gender but in reality a banker would usually have more in common with another banker than the teacher next door," she explains. 

Only a small minority of people (17% of men and 31% of women) consider themselves feminists.

Salzman points to the examples of Google and Facebook as brands which have successfully figured out how to be gender-neutral. "It is that millennial brand asthetic, it is not bold and not demure." At the same time a growing number of innovative brands are embracing the fact that gender is a fluid concept. A shift illustrated this summer by the launch of Pyre, the PlayStation 4 game which allows players to create gender-neutral characters.

Feminism’s marketing challenge

Yet while gender definitions are blurring, the mechanisms and attitudes to how equality is to be won are in a state of flux. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie may have eloquently explained why "we should all be feminists", but the research reveals that feminism is getting lost in translation.

Only a small minority of people (17% of men and 31% of women) consider themselves feminists. Although millennials (ages 18 to 34) are more likely than baby boomers (55+) to consider themselves feminists (29% vs 21%, respectively) they are not necessarily more supportive of feminism. In fact, almost a third of millennials (31%) believe feminism has caused more harm than good, compared with 26% of boomers. Posing the question, do millennial women believe they have been sold a myth?

Just as Salzman successfully predicted Trump’s victory care of "Joe Six Pack", the alienated white male who found himself sat on the couch while his wife went out to work, are we now faced with a similar alienation amongst millennial women? Have the women brought up on the mantra that they can "have it all", ultimately been left frustrated and alienated by thwarted ambition?

The research certainly reveals a palpable frustration with the status quo. For all the advances women have made over the last half century, they are nowhere near to having achieved equality. Nearly half of the global sample agreed that women today have rights but no real power. While a majority of both men and women (52% and 64% respectively) say there aren’t enough women in executive positions.

The man who has it all

The number one response among men and women alike as to what it was was preventing women from earning as much as men was "sexism and gender bias". However, 31% of millennials believe that male - female relationships work better when the man earns more than his female partner; this compares with just 22% of boomers who believe the same.

So is there an emerging ‘’Joe-Six Pack" equivalent among frustrated millennial women coming up against their own glass ceilings, (rented) brick walls and ever-increasing expectations? It’s not so simple, according to Salzman, who believes the "Man who has it all" syndrome is more than just a (brilliantly funny) parody account on Twitter. Many of these frustrations and challenges are genderless with as many as 1 in 3 men becoming stay at home dads in the US over the next decade.

"There is more of a sense [amongst millennials] that if you want a family you have to be there for a family. You cannot simply acquire a family and then outsource their care," she says.

It is a shift which means advertising needs to move its focus from the cliche of the "tired working mother" and instead embrace that "tired working human".

This trend was also reflected in the UK research data, where 71% of men and 70% of women agreed that "being a successful parent is more important than having a successful career".

The untapped power of HeForShe

Yet while feminism is perhaps not viewed by the respondents as the answer to many of today’s problems, there is no question that equality is sacrosanct. The vast majority of respondents (87%) support equal pay for equal work. While less than a third of men (31%) and a quarter of women (24%) believe male-female relationships work better when the man is the dominant partner. According to Salzman, the palpable frustration surrounding the rate of change when it comes to equality is shared by both genders who are collectively asking brands and society "what is taking so long?". A state of play which means that businesses must "commit to change not by 2020 but by today".

Salzman says these issues are not "gender issues" but instead "people issues". Pointing to the Dove "Campaign for Real Women" she says that moving forward the key for brands will be to no longer have a message of female empowerment in isolation. Pointing to the success of the UN’s "HeForShe" campaign she believes tackling inequality is better served by inclusivity. She explains: "People want real stories and a definite sex role is not a true story. Brands need to recognise it's no longer about 'grow up and act like a lady or be a man' it is about being true to yourself."

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of an agendered society for brands or the creative implications of moving beyond highly-gendered definitions, stereotypes and segmentations. Critics of the Advertising Standards Authority's recent move to issue guidelines on gender stereotyping in advertising argued it would limit creativity, that it would take the humour out of communication. The truth is less simplistic. If the limitations and restrictions of gender stereotyping reinforced by advertising and society are a joke then the individual has been the punchline. Change is coming.

Key takeaways for brands

1. Raise children as children

This issue is particularly sensitive when it comes to children with the emphasis being placed on the notion that children should be raised as children not boys and girls. Over half of men and two thirds of women believe children need a gender neutral childhood.

2. Gender distinctions are fading

75% of men and women believe the two sexes are equally valuable to society, while 70% believe the sexes are equally smart and intellectual.

3. Traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity are falling away

In developing markets 52% believe a "man should be masculine", while less than half (48%) believe a "woman should be feminine".

4. Gender is an increasingly fluid concept

Over half (52%) of women and 44% of men agree with the statement: "I do not believe in set genders: gender is fluid, and everyone can be what they feel they are."

5. Reassess the cult of motherhood

Barely half of the global sample (55% of men and 54% of women) believe parenting comes more naturally to women than to men.


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