Why equality is a dirty word for marketers

Academia’s male focus has led to the advertising industry looking through a male lens that reflects the past, says Bec Brideson.

Google ‘Mother of Marketing’ and get pink Mother’s Day flotsam. Google ‘Father of Marketing’ and get a grey man. One grey man repeated in particular – Phillip Kotler.

an image comparing the results of 2 web searches: 'mother of marketing' and 'father of marketing'

Kotler started teaching marketing in 1962 at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. From the mind of this great man, marketers were blessed with the guidance of his principle concepts of market segmentation, positioning and Marketing 1.0 – 4.0.

Meanwhile, parallel to the rise of Kotler’s formative career and his theories on marketing flourishing, the landscape for women looked something like this:

  • There was no equality in the workplace until 1974.
  • Gender remained a barrier for Ivy League education. The likes of Yale, Princeton and Harvard didn’t start accepting women until the late 60s and early 70s.
  • Planning for family was still everyone’s business but women’s. Reproductive rights and freedoms were still within the domain of men and were only just starting to include women in the discussion in the 1960s.
  • The law neglected to represent the other half of justice. The start of the 1970s allowed women to sit on juries.

A single woman was not worth the credit. Women who were single were refused a credit card in the 1960s, while women who were married needed their husband to co-sign.

Throughout Kotler’s vast lifetime, the social and political discussion around women changed in unprecedented ways and marketing certainly had a hand in this development. Kotler himself, a child of the 1930s, saw the after-effects of suffragettes obtaining the vote and has even lived to see modern women today grow in influence and power to form a sizeable $28T consumer economy.

Kotler has often talked keenly of his greatest influences such as Peter Drucker, Milton Freidman and Leo Tolstoy. Thought Kotler has endorsed Marti Barletta’s words on women as the fastest growing economy, Kotler’s legacy remains, even to this day, strictly male-influenced and biased by the notable lack of professional women in his spheres of influences.

There is no doubt that Kotler’s basic principles of marketing are full of rich value. However, they continue a deep misunderstanding and neglect of gender that hampers and hinders marketing’s academia and industry from deriving real insight about women today.

Equality vs Difference

In numerous papers and studies, many academics have argued for an application of female thought to challenge and develop the marketing discipline. Others have argued as early as the 90s that utilising female perspectives will help expand marketing’s historical consideration of female consumers to a full and fundamental investigation of gender differences and their impact on marketing’s current body of knowledge.

Gender differences are huge: if societies prescription of M and F public toilets doesn’t signal this – how about that we have different reproductive capabilities, play in different sporting leagues and different titles to indicate a Mr from a Mrs – all because of our in-built chemical, hormonal and scientifically proven dissimilarities. We have our identities and strengths anchored by masculine and feminine behaviours and preferences. Women and men are different beasts right down to brain chemistry and we have the MRIs to prove it. We’re different – it’s Darwinian and irrefutable.

Others add another layer by arguing that marketing practitioners operate from assumptions, values and methodologies that – thanks to our historical hangover – are male-skewed and inevitably affect research into consumer behaviour including identifying appropriate problems, research design and analysis. By further understanding our gender differences, we can not only evolve our insight but the paradigms and methodologies that we ultimately use.

Gender differences need to take a more central stage within the discipline as our marketplace continues to be filled with products, services and messaging that appeals to the many rather than the specific. I am still surprised by the amount of businesses who don’t factor gender into their research or marketing or product design. The messy middle ground flies in the face of sharpened strategic targeting and tone.

Marketers must tread lightly around equality. Equality in the workplace is essential but shouldn’t be confused with the realm of social equality which has diluted difference into homogenous insights and broad-brush segmentation. Equal Opportunity doesn’t mean that we purposely stop seeing difference.

Don’t be afraid about recognising gender – it can lead to finding richer nuances and competitive edge.

Academia today – the male lens in practice

Google a list of the top business books. Richard Branson, Napoleon Hill, Steve Jobs, Eric Riess, Tim Ferriss, Charles Duhrig, and of course, Sun Tzu’s Art of War – all of them fantastic, insightful, important. And all have also been written through the male experience and perspective. The male lens continues to hang over us from previous centuries, and though women are taking up the mantle as authors and experts – social changes remains glacial.

I wanted to go deeper and as a way of finding out for myself how pervasive the male perspective was in the academia of business. I decided to dip my toe into an industry-based mini MBA taught by the deeply respected Adjunct Professor Mark Ritson.

I was not disappointed diving into his brilliant 12-week course. I was refreshed, reinvigorated and reminded of why the precious tenets of marketing are my drug of choice, and why any professional marketer needs to get back to basics.

Professor Ritson quotes the classics of academia from Harvard, Stanford and other prized learning institutions. The reading list was wonderful, the breadth of case studies vast. But much like Kotler’s influences, there was an absolute paucity of female marketing experts referenced let alone any insight about the impact of gender.

The “Fore-Mothers” that could help create the balance of female-lensed marketing do not seem to exist in our business history. Beyond Lucy Suchman, Erin Anderson, Sally Dibb; I would estimate the reference of female experts cited in this curriculum was 1 per every 19 males. It would appear that even the modern academic curriculum has not been able to ferret out the numerous female figures who have helped shape the last hundred years of the discipline.

Ritson isn’t to be blamed – the current system and its immobile structure should be. Without a diversity of approaches that allow us to critique its assumptions; we may not recognise our selective bias in choosing our research problems, strategy, marketing design and methodology.

The culprit could be, as multiple papers conclude, marketing’s masculinist leanings that prefer the ‘machine-thinking’ of the mind over the feminine ‘body and emotions.’ Such gendered underpinnings affect not only the way we perceive and research female consumers, but also how female scholars learn and develop within the profession. Academics have concluded that women interpret experiences in a “relatively interpersonal, subjective and contextual way” while men determine their life experiences through “self, others, space and time in individualistic, objective and distant ways.”

Whilst the addition of women into the workforce and academia would supposedly address this, it’s just not so. If the women coming through the educational ranks have been taught through this traditional frame of male-lensed “separatist” thinking – they lose their ability to arrive through their own preferred cognitive method of “interconnectedness” or “constructed knowing” in which truth emerges through a holistic method of empathy and understanding.

Re-lensing business does not mean simply pink-dressing an organisation with quotas, attaching daddy parental schemes and fixing the “women’s pipeline problem” with an empowerment breakfast. Progress can begin in business from an HR perspective but there still remains a dearth of commercial gendered thinking and the understanding of gender as an intelligent market advantage that will inevitably hold us, and those in charge, back.

Melinda Gates said that we are sending our daughters in to workplaces built by their fathers, in which it is unfair to mould our future using past practice. In order to create change, we must begin to see past the legacy lens which is not serving us nor our progression.

Re-lensing business means quite deliberately seeking out a new way of viewing things. It means taking into consideration the different cognitive structures, development and socialisation processes that help men and women understand world-views, seek knowledge and conduct research.

The fly in the ointment may well be the concept of the word “equality”.

The furtherance of knowledge and progress demands not just a single strategy, but a convergence of approaches, designs and statistical analyses best found by a diversity of inquiry. There is no doubt in my mind that by simply re-lensing business through gender you can sharpen your brand’s success, improve your product’s features, and create unprecedented growth by teaching both genders in your workforce the importance of seeing through both lenses in every part of your marketing mix.