In a recent interview with marketing and research expert, Dr. Katherine Sredl, I had the pleasure of gaining insight into how gendered marketing influences the gendered world we live in, and vise versa.
Dr. Katherine Sredl is a marketing professor at Loyola University Chicago, as well as a consultant, and a consumer behavior and media researcher. Her research focuses on the intersection of consumer behavior, advertising, and sociology. Her work has been published in academic journals including Consumption Markets & Culture and Journal of Macromarketing.
Through my conversation with Dr. Sredl, we explored how the implications of gender show up in the way we are raised, in our education system, and in behaviors in the workplace. We also talked about the cyclical relationship that gender norms have in marketing and how millennials are breaking this cycle.
Millennials are Parenting in a More Gender-Fluid Way
Gendered inequality starts at home. Societal norms around gender are often imposed on a child before they are even born.
With the rising trend on social media of gender reveal parties and increasingly creative methods of revealing the answer to the big question, “is it a boy or a girl?”, children are born under the heavy pressure of society’s expectations.
In our society, gender comes with a set of assumed behaviors and characteristics that you’re expected to perform. Much of what you’re supposed to like, and who you’re supposed to be is already planned out for you.
Children’s’ toys, for instance, create a divide between males and females at a young age. Sredl states that, “it’s always, girls are given these toys and boys are given these toys.”
Girls are given barbie dolls and easy bake ovens, enforcing the stereotype that girls should value physical beauty and that cooking and other home-centered activities are considered women’s work.
On the other hand, boys are given plastic swords and toy guns, which enforces the belief that the male gender is supposed to be tough, strong, and not to mention—violent.
Fortunately, millennials are parenting in a more gender-fluid way, and marketers are responding to this fact.
Target has moved away from using gender-based signage in their stores and instead they now categorize their toys with signs like “building blocks” or “dolls” instead of assigning sections for “girls” and “boys.”
Sredl explains that especially among baby boomers and older generations, “there’s a big backlash against this, of people rejecting removing gender”. When speaking about baby boomers and older generations specifically, Sredl has found that “if you challenge the default it’s very upsetting to people”.
Gender: From the Classroom to the Workplace
Gender also plays a pivotal role in how individuals show up as students in the classroom.
Dr. Sredl explained that “students who fail to perform have failed to ask for help, and a majority of the time the students who fail to ask for help are male”.
Asking for help is a learned behavior. Men are traditionally taught that they need to be independent and self-reliant. Sredl has gathered that, “they think men don’t ask for help” and when given the choice between asking for help and failing, “they would rather fail”.
In the workplace, many assume that to be successful in business, you need to act like a man. Considering the lack of representation among Fortune 500 CEOs, this isn’t a far-fetched assumption.
Stereotypically masculine traits include strength, independence, and assertiveness. Qualities that are typically considered more feminine include empathy, collaboration, and intuition, and these traits are gaining more relevance in our modern-day workforce.
As all of these aforementioned traits are learned behaviors, one step towards gender equality is to stop associating these traits as being inherently masculine or feminine.
Purchasing Power vs. Financial Power
Sredl distinguishes that “purchasing power and financial power are two different distributions of power in a family”. Women hold the majority of the purchasing power in families—meaning that they make most of the decisions on what to buy. She explains that “consumer packaged goods are assumed to be products that women will buy” and as a result, advertising campaigns, especially in the CPG sector, are often targeted only at women. When it comes to financial services, these types of buying decisions are often considered to be male decisions. And so, marketers only target men with these types of advertisements.
What we’re seeing is that this line is starting to blur. With men staying at home more, especially with the onset of the pandemic, there’s a whole new market to consider. And with more women taking charge of their personal finances, Sredl says, “it’s a new concept for the financial services industry to target women”.
The marketing industry is seeing a lot of change. Sredl explains, “it’s mostly men who have been making marketing decisions until quite recently. Now it’s women making those decisions in companies, so we can expect the voice of those ads to shift a lot.”
Breaking the Cycle Between Gender and Marketing
There is a cyclical relationship between gender and marketing in our society.
Marketing influences the role that gender plays in our society and has the power to further play into stereotypes or shatter them. Similarly, the way we perform our gender in society influences marketing and advertising campaigns. Marketing and gender norms are intertwined – one directly impacts the other.
Marketing enforces the drastic separation of gender in our society, and the way we behave in society contributes to why marketers target individuals based on their gender. To break out of this we need to see big changes all across the board.
We need to see parents demonstrating behaviors and roles within the household that don’t feed into traditional gendered stereotypes.
We need more representation in the workforce and to stop giving a gender to people’s qualities and behaviors.
Lastly, we need to end marketers targeting consumers based on their gender.
Why not, instead, have marketers target consumers based on their values?