Companies Can’t Ignore Shifting Gender Norms
The conversation around gender is changing worldwide. More than 12% of U.S. millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, and a majority believe that gender is a spectrum rather than a man/woman binary. Compared to millennials, Gen Z’s views on gender are even more progressive Companies are starting to realize that this shift is no longer something they can ignore. But addressing new perceptions and realities around gender isn’t simply about creating inclusive policies, changing internal information systems, or including pronouns in email signatures. It’s about understanding how gender norms and the binary affect all of us and reimagining how gender appears across the entire company — from market research to customer experience to the products you sell. Organizations that expand their focus to truly understand and respond to this change may start to recognize the much bigger business opportunity in front of them.
You’ve probably noticed that the conversation around gender is changing. A drastic reimagining of gender identity is underway, one that will reshape our future.
More than 12% of U.S. millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, and a majority believe that gender is a spectrum rather than a man/woman binary. Compared to millennials, Gen Z’s views on gender are even more advanced. In the U.S., 56% know someone who uses a gender neutral pronoun and 59% believe forms should include options other than “man” and “woman.” Globally, 25% of Gen Zers expect to change their gender identity at least once during their lifetime.
Companies are starting to realize that this shift is no longer something they can ignore. As the CEO of Reimagine Gender, a nonprofit focused on helping corporations and others understand and address evolving understandings of gender, I’ve been approached by business leaders with growing frequency. Their questions often focus on the experiences of transgender and other employees who don’t conform to the traditional gender binary, including: “We’re reviewing our bathroom policies to support all of our employees — do you have any advice for us?”; “What gender identity options should we include in our recruiting and HR systems?; and “How do we reconcile those identifiers for our reporting to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and others?”
While these questions are encouraging to hear and important to address, many of them miss the larger point. Today, addressing new perceptions and realities around gender isn’t simply about creating inclusive policies, changing internal information systems, or including pronouns in email signatures. It’s about understanding how gender is approached across the entire company — from market research to customer experience to the products you sell. Organizations that respond to this change may start to recognize the much bigger business opportunity in front of them: a chance to create products and experiences for a growing body of consumers that no longer buy into traditional conceptions of gender and the stereotypical, binary classifications attached to it.
It starts with awareness.
Gender may manifest itself across your products, marketing, and processes in ways you’re not thinking about, but which have the potential to turn off consumers who would otherwise want to buy your products. The first step is to become more aware of the assumptions you’re making about gender. For example, have you thought about the fact that nearly all virtual voice assistants (like Alexa) have female names and voices? Why do you think that’s the case? And why does a voice assistant need a gender at all?
The following suggestions can help you and your teams become more aware of the assumptions you may be making across the business, so that you can better align your strategies with the realities of gender today — and reap the benefits.
Product development teams. Consider how you’re gendering your products, and whether this may actually hold you back from reaching new customers or developing new creative product lines. Keep in mind that 48% of Gen Zers value brands that don’t classify items by gender. (Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner was ahead of the curve several years ago when he announced that he “eliminated the old delineation of gender” across the company’s brands after learning that 30% of My Little Pony consumers worldwide were boys.)
Much of the gendering that occurs traces back to assumptions embedded in market research and brainstorming sessions. I often see expensive product development and marketing decisions made on research instruments with unconscious gender assumptions built into them. Case in point, I once worked with the product manager of a national brand whose product sales were limited due to gendered assumptions. They conducted a field study and user interviews, the results of which they believed supported the gendered ways they were developing and marketing their product.
But when we reviewed the research tools and resulting data together, we identified instances of unnecessary assumptions about gender baked into their process. For example, their focus group of 9 to 12-year-olds was given a set of questions to answer about the product, but the questions were sorted into subsets— one for boys and one for girls. I asked the company how they decided which kids to ask the gender-specific questions to, and it turned out the moderator had discretion over making that determination. In other words, the moderator made this decision based on their perception of the child’s gender, as opposed to their actual gender identity.
A few key points here: For one, the likelihood that the moderator categorized every child correctly is low. Further, we know that most youth do not see gender in binary terms and some may not have self-identified in the gender category they were assigned. Not only did these problems with research design generate unreliable data, but the product team also missed the opportunity to gain new market insights that could inform product design and marketing decisions, ultimately expanding consumer interest.
These challenges aren’t unique to products for children and youth. I’ve seen similar issues in industries as diverse as personal care, automotive, and finance.
One way to avoid these problems is to explicitly consider gender assumptions during brainstorms. This can help ensure you’re starting from a place of awareness. For example, you might ask:
Marketing teams. Are you making assumptions about what your customers are looking for because of their gender? This could be off putting, or lead to missed opportunities. For example, many women aren’t interested in or don’t have the money for cosmetics and facial care products; on the flipside, more than 56% of U.S. men used some sort of facial cosmetic at least once in 2018.
Explicitly defining products as feminine or masculine excludes customers who might be interested. I was looking at newborn carriers recently for a friend who is expecting a baby soon. Some of the colors and patterns found on carriers assume that all parents agree with and want products that reinforce stereotypical gender characteristics (i.e., blue for boys and pink for girls; dinosaurs for boys and hearts for girls). There’s nothing wrong with companies providing a range of designs to meet the interests of their consumers, but be wary of assuming that the only people interested in your camo design baby carrier are parents expecting to have a boy. When you do so, you could be losing a significant portion of potential customers.
Apple is one company that does a nice job of designing products without a gender overlay. iPhone marketing assumes everyone wants one, and none of the iPhone 11’s six colors is associated with a particular gender. Everyone gets to pick the color they like, without being told what color they should want based on their gender.
That doesn’t mean you can’t tailor messaging to segments, but don’t assume they are gender-based in traditional ways — this assumption will likely be a costly one. Start by evaluating the target audiences for your brands; anytime this is driven by gender, ask yourself if there’s another way to define the people who are most likely to buy your product.
Customer service teams. As far as the customer experience, the first piece of advice I often give companies is to never assume someone’s gender. Remember, you can always ask customers what they prefer to be called, whether you are interacting in person or through written communications. United Airlines, for instance, offers non-binary gender options across all booking channels.
Healthcare companies are also looking for ways to improve patient support. Not long ago, I checked in online prior to a doctor’s appointment and was asked which name and pronouns I would like the staff to use during my visit. This is a terrific question for someone whose gender and pronouns may not be aligned with their sex (especially in the context of healthcare, where people can feel vulnerable), but also for others, including anyone who uses a nickname. (At the appointment later that week, I noticed all staff had a sticker on their badge indicating their pronouns.) These two simple questions ease the interaction between patient and provider, reduce patient stress related to receiving care, and create an environment where everyone is more likely to feel respected.
Oftentimes, you can simply avoid using words like “sir” or “ma’am” that assume someone’s gender based on their name, voice, or appearance. An executive in the hospitality industry shared that they were receiving negative comments at some locations because of how staff gendered customers, so he asked me for advice on how they might handle common questions their waitstaff encounter differently. When I asked for an example of a situation his staff was struggling with, he mentioned questions about the location of the bathroom. He noticed that staff made assumptions about which bathroom the customer was interested in and then shared where that bathroom was located.
He acknowledged that some of their bathrooms are single stall bathrooms and needn’t be gendered at all, which would partly solve the problem — but what about the gendered bathrooms? I mentioned that generally bathrooms are located in the same area; where this is the case, just letting the customer know how to get to the area where the bathrooms are is sufficient. The customer can determine by the signage on the door which they want to use.
When the bathrooms are not located in the same area, telling the customer where the bathrooms are located (“the men’s room is located to the right of the bar and the women’s is to the left of the bar”) takes the guesswork out of which is the desired bathroom .
In situations where an employee will be having a conversation of some length with your customer, they can ask someone what they prefer to be called, and avoid using pronouns altogether. For example, “I see that we have your name listed as Nathaniel, may I address you by Nathaniel, or is there another name you prefer?” These are small changes – and different contexts will call for variations to this script – but they can make a world of difference to your customers.
Reimagining gender benefits all of us.
Mattel is one example of a company that is reimagining gender in its products. Last fall, the multinational manufacturing company released Creatable World, a new line of gender neutral dolls. Its SVP and Global Head of Design for Barbie and Fashion Dolls, Kim Culmone, explained: “Through research, we heard that kids don’t want their toys dictated by gender norms (our emphasis). This line allows all kids to express themselves freely… We’re hopeful Creatable World will encourage people to think more broadly about how all kids can benefit from doll play.”
This isn’t the first time Mattel has created toys that recognize evolving cultural norms. After years of declining sales for Barbie, the iconic doll that many criticize for its unrealistic representation of a female beauty standard, it introduced a line called Barbie Fashionista which presents Barbie in a new range of body types and skin tones. This change revitalized the Barbie brand.
When you start thinking more expansively about gender, it’s not just your customers who will benefit. Many of your employees — and your future employees — will welcome the opportunity to work for a company where they feel empowered to show up as their full and authentic selves.
Understanding gender as a spectrum — and approaching your business endeavors with this in mind — will open new possibilities for all your customers and employees. A new gender reality has been unfolding and expanding rapidly, and businesses have a true opportunity to lead and grow rather than simply comply.
Lisa Kenney, Co-founder and CEO of Reimagine Gender, is a featured speaker at conferences and a consultant to organizations on the changing understandings of gender and the implications this has for families, social institutions and corporations. You can connect with Lisa on LinkedIn.
Companies Can’t Ignore Shifting Gender Norms
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