Women and Marketing – Powerless or Powerful?

Women and Marketing – Powerless or Powerful?

This blog post was going to be about something else entirely, until I went to an excellent panel discussion yesterday, hosted by Bay Brazil (www.baybrazil.com) and SDForum (www.sdforum.org), on the Global Women’s Journey. Details about the event can be found here http://baybrazil.com/events/. The panel was composed of women from around the world who had achieved success in Silicon Valley. Discussion ranged from whether there is a glass ceiling (interestingly the only rejecter of this idea was the sole American on the panel), through a debate on the merits of introducing quotas to bring the number of women on boards in the US to something approaching parity with men (it was the non-Americans who thought this idea was the most effective way to help bring about equality), and ended with what we can do to keep helping women achieve equality.

The above is a very short, incomplete summary of a fascinating 2-hour debate which was enlivened with personal stories and stimulating questions; I do not claim to do it justice. However it did re-ignite some of my feminist stirrings and start me on the path to thinking about marketing and its role in the gender debate, are we powerless to stop its evil effects or do we have the power to make key economic decisions?

The statistics are depressing, women are half (or the majority according to some statistics) of the workforce and yet make much less than men, where in the world you live has an impact on how much less, but it’s always less. If you are interested in a more detailed analysis of pay variations by country it can be found in a paper I wrote for my MBA that you can find here: Doing Business in Europe. The problem is no longer that women are not being employed; it’s that they are doing so in positions which hold less power, no matter how you define power. Women hold far fewer board seats than men (women comprise 11% of board seats in the US[i]), there are many more men in C-level positions than there are women (25 of the CEOs of the Fortune 1000 are women[ii]), and don’t even get me started on women in politics. It’s nearly 100 years since women got the vote in the UK, Canada and the US (admittedly only 40 in Switzerland)[iii] and still the percentage of female politicians, particularly those holding senior parliamentary positions, is low. Three of the G7 countries have never had a woman as head of government or head of state[iv].


Marketing has a huge role to play in all of this. The image of women as portrayed by mass media has shaped many generations; with the majority of advertizing being directed at women the impact of these commercials and products should not be understated. Mass media marketing by definition reaches the masses; it is something most people will encounter in their day to day lives. To be effective at getting a consumer to act it must also be repeated often. In addition, most people do not have insight into the personal lives of many other people, a small set of friends and coworkers but that is usually all. This means that the images presented by marketing companies are seen by many, frequently and we have little other data with which to reject the truth of what they present, therefore they are likely to affect our opinion of what is “normal”.

We have seen an evolution in the portrayal of the “ideal” woman from being predominantly a stay-at-home mother to evolve into a woman who now has interests and a career outside of the home (but who is still of course the perfect housewife too). I love Barbie as an example of how women have evolved. No longer is Barbie constrained to being a ballerina or a secretary, nowadays she can follow these careers or be a doctor, vet or computer engineer (check out http://icanbe.barbie.com/), even a Dolphin Trainer! Now that’s aiming high. She even left Ken to be an independent woman. I must admit here that I am a fan of the social media campaign in place at the moment for Barbie and Ken, it’s ridiculous, but multi-faceted and engaging, who wouldn’t want to follow Ken on Twitter? Today’s advertizing does present images of women who work but their lives still revolve around the house and children.

Unfortunately, what we haven’t seen is advertizing aiming home products at men. Cleaning and child rearing, according to the marketing world, is still a female task. Until it becomes acceptable for these tasks to be shared between couples it is going to be difficult for women to compete in the workplace because they are the ones who get called away to look after sick children or parents and so are more frequently absent from work[v]. As an aside, an interesting article on this topic is here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21547885/ns/business-careers/.

As we move from an era of mass marketing, which broadcasts the views of a small subset of the population to the population as a whole, towards a more social media driven marketing system, based on an interactive dialogue between brand and customer, will we begin to see marketing which is able to react to changing roles faster than our current one? And perhaps helps to enforce change rather than the status quo?


I have talked about how marketing presents women, but what about the fact that most marketing is aimed at women? The statistics are clear, women control 80% of household decisions and more than 50% of the wealth in the US[vi]. They account for the consumer purchases of 91% of new homes, 92% of vacations, 66% of PCs, 65% of new cars and 89% of bank accounts[vii]. At the beginning of this article we identified that women don’t run companies (low % on company boards or in C-level positions), and so have little direct influence what new products are created or how they are produced (investment expenditure in economic terms), nor are they in government in large numbers and so can’t directly impact the choices of government (government expenditure). However we see that their opinions do drive choices related to private goods (private consumption). For those who understand economics YCIG(X − M), basically this says the GDP (Y) of a country comprises private consumption (C), plus investment expenditure (I), plus government expenditure (G), plus net exports (exports (X) minus imports (M)). I’m leaving (X-M) out of this discussion for simplicity, so what we are left with is that women control the majority of private consumption which is normally the largest component of GDP[viii] (for example in Canada in 2007 it was 55.5% of GDP[ix]).

So when you think about it from a “show me the money” point of view, maybe women have lots of financial power and we really need to just start acting like it. We can do that by choosing to spend money with companies who portray women the way we want to be portrayed, who have positive policies for women in the workplace or who just make good products which make life easier for us so we can focus on doing the best jobs we can.


2 thoughts on “Women and Marketing – Powerless or Powerful?

  1. In other words you should NEVER shop at Wal-Mart. Waiting to find out if the Supreme Court will permit female employees to file a class action lawsuit against W given its horrible track record re the treatment of female employees. I know there are other offenders out there, but this one is my big beef!

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