They/Them: Ingredients for gender equity in marketing

Credit: Katie Rainbow
Credit: Katie Rainbow

The industry has long used gender to make inferences about consumer needs, wants, behaviors and attitudes. It’s time to question those assumptions.

Marketing and advertising play a powerful role in influencing societal gender norms, perceptions and expectations. Unfortunately, much of what is depicted in the media is rife with bias. 

A recent study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media evaluated characters in the most-watched ads on YouTube from 2015 to 2019, and found that only 2% depicted at least one LGBTQ+ character. This misrepresentation and narrow view of gender and sexuality can fuel real-world discrimination as well as skew self-perception. 

In 2019, the U.K. banned ads that rely on gender stereotypes following the Advertising Standards Authority’s report that showed how gender stereotypes in ads can lead to unequal gender outcomes in people’s public and private lives.  

Indeed, a fundamental shift in marketing, advertising and market research is required here.  

Rewrite the segmentation guidebook   

Audience groups are often based on standard demographics: race/ethnicity, gender, age, etc. Segments based on gender are commonly paired with stereotypes, like “soccer mom,” or “tech bro,” and are therefore problematic and have potential negative societal impact. Just as importantly, they may also overlook more relevant and useful ways of segmenting the market.    

Demographics have historically been meaningful because they divide people into groups who presumably think and behave differently. However, this assumption is not based in fact. Rather assuming that gender matters, marketers need to consider whether gender is actually a key factor in driving consumer behavior.  

If, for instance, you’re introducing a new milk alternative to the market, region may be more informative than gender. Consumers from dairy producing regions are likely to have stronger beliefs and attitudes about milk than those who aren’t.  

Marketers often qualify people for research based on gender. But rather than assuming attitudes and beliefs from demographics, it is often more efficient to ask consumers about their behaviors.  

Research on beauty products, for instance, often includes women only. But by using gender as a qualification, marketers exclude individuals who are interested in their products and can provide valuable information. A better qualifier might be people who spend a certain amount on beauty items monthly, or people who have ever spent more than a specific amount on a beauty product. After all, plenty of women are not very engaged in the beauty category, and many people of other genders are. 

Segmentation is about simplifying the market, going from individual to shared characteristics that allow marketers to reach and influence large numbers of people. As a result, they will not accurately reflect every single individual. But the point is not to avoid categorization altogether. Instead, marketers need to find relevant bases on which people differ — which may not necessarily be biological categories.   

Recognize gender’s expansiveness  

There are certainly times when it is important to consider gender. But even when gender is relevant, it is still critical to think beyond the binary.  

At the very least, acknowledge that there are more than two categories of gender by offering options beyond “man” and “woman.” Even the way we ask about gender (i.e. “What is your gender?” vs. “How do you identify?”) signals beliefs about whether gender is biological or cultural, and the importance of chosen versus ascribed identity. Create space for the consumer to tell you how they think of themselves.   

The cost of assumptions  

The industry has long used gender to make inferences about consumer needs, wants, behaviors and attitudes. It’s time to question those assumptions.  

Consumers are demanding greater diversity and more accurate representation. Marketers must stop assuming what gender identity means based on manufactured associations, begin to grasp its expansiveness and take steps to better understand it.  

Collette P. Eccleston is PhD, SVP of behavioral science at Material. 

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