Avoid Gender Washing: Making Sense of Marketing to Women by Understanding the Three Waves of Feminism
By Jenny Darroch
Originally published in June 2014
Realizing that women make around 85 percent of all purchase decisions but unsure of how to effectively market to women, many managers end up adopting a strategy of “gender washing.” Gender washing has two defining characteristics: (1) a failure to acknowledge women’s distinct needs, and/or (2) a belief that marketing to women simply means offering the “shrink it and pink it” version of men’s products.
To avoid the mistake of gender washing and, more importantly, to know how to better recalibrate marketing practice, means to understand the different stages that define contemporary feminism. In most countries, giving women the vote and allowing property rights were early attempts to seek gender equality. But it is the second and third wave of feminism that should be of interest to marketers. The second wave of feminism (circa 1970s) focused on differences between men and women — for example, physical differences such as “women bear children,” or psychological differences such as “men are good at competition and autonomy and bad at relationships and emotion. Women excel in relationships and emotion and are bad at competition and autonomy.”
There are many criticisms of the second wave of feminism. One criticism is that women continue to assume a subordinate status because they are defined as being less rational, more emotional, more dependent and closer to nature. A second criticism is that feminism, as practiced around the 1970s, was the prevue of white middle class women and did not embrace the context of other women, such as women of color — that is, feminism treated all women as the same.
The third wave of feminism, therefore, emerged to focus on the differences between women with an emphasis on differences based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
What does this mean for marketing practice today? First, I believe that much marketing practice still reflects the feminist views of the 1970s. My recommendation then is for marketing practice to become more current and properly embrace the third wave of feminism by accepting that there are many differences between women. But I would add a twist to this recommendation. Current third wave writers acknowledge that there is “no one answer to the question of how to live as a feminist. Rather each women must confront the unique problems of her particular life.” With this in mind, instead of focusing on demographic differences between women, such as race and ethnicity, marketers should first focus on a woman’s needs by identifying the problems women are trying to solve for which the organization’s product could be a solution. Consumer needs then become a more appropriate method to distinguish between women.
Focusing on her needs, and adding questions to further understand her context and motivations, should avoid gender washing… and improve marketing practice overall.