No pundit or pollster could possibly match the credibility of decals adorning a weathered tombstone in upstate New York. After casting their ballots on Election Day, dozens of women made pilgrimages to place their “I Voted” stickers on the final resting place of suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony.
In quiet solidarity, these “I Voted” stickers marked the mobilization of women to shift the balance of power. In a broader sense, the labels also traced the narrative arc of how women have been portrayed as decision makers.
Over several generations, labels as symbols have easily lapsed into hackneyed stereotypes, like those which have been carelessly formed about women as consumers and constituents. It’s time for communicators to look past lazy labels and engage real women in meaningful conversations.
Women Stick Together
One of the most persistent tropes in politics and advertising is that of the “pink wave,” or women in aggregate. It’s not surprising, given that one of our nation’s mottos, E pluribus unum, translates to “out of many, one.”
Arguably, it is the most primitive of assumptions: that women as a single voting bloc will stick together on issues such as birth control, equal pay, domestic violence and sexual harassment.
Yes, the number of women who will serve in Congress and as governors next year is historically significant. However, the euphoria could also stun the public into accepting the current narrative, one in which scale implies power. It can be tempting to stop there. After all, big numbers are hard to resist – and tough to ignore.
There have been past attempts at slicing general population data for campaigns — both electoral and marketing. But they didn’t go far enough. Instead, they conveniently spawned these stereotypes:
- The Happy Homemaker reigned during the 1950s, as the role of women centered on family life. To politicians of the day, women played a vital role in the Cold War, protecting the American institution of the family as the center of U.S. socioeconomic might and an imposing anti-Communist bulwark. Madison Avenue upheld the image by targeting a dizzying array of product ads at women who managed household spending during a time of economic prosperity.
- The Feminist strode into the spotlight and onto the national agenda in the 1960s and 1970s. Against a backdrop of war and social change, including legalized birth control, women took civic action and pursued new vocations. In politics and marketing, the idea of the assertive feminist mainstreamed as women began to find fulfillment outside the home, venturing in greater numbers into the workplace and political arena. Cigarette brand Virginia Slims exemplified the group with its ad slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
- The Soccer Mom defined suburban female voters in the 1996 election year. Republican strategists coined the term for swing voters personified as busy mothers whose middle-class values were embodied by the minivans they drove, dutifully shuttling their precious cargo of children to sporting events and other activities. In his 1996 New York Times article titled “What’s a Soccer Mom anyway?,” Neil MacFarquhar cheekily crushed the myth: “The United States Youth Soccer Association puts the number of all players under age 19 at only about 2.5 million.” So much for a voting bloc. Nonetheless, marketers embraced the Soccer Mom and her variant who evolved into the social media era as its first influencer: the Mommy Blogger.
- The Angry College-Educated Woman now is emerging as a new persona taking shape between the last two election cycles. She is depicted as the pink feline hat-wearing protestor enraged by President Trump’s rhetoric, #MeToo injustice and the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing. As this pre-packaged stereotype approaches the threshold of mass consumption, will marketers break the pattern?
Change has Arrived
Human reasoning prompts a natural compulsion to explain. In the haste to attribute answers lies a tendency to latch on to oversimplified ideas.
It is possible to move past hollow images, believes Kelly Dittmar, scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
“Part of the way [the current environment] sustains itself or that we sustain it is by not calling this a ‘Year of the Woman’ and not talking about it as some idiosyncratic year in which all these confluence of factors allowed for women to run,” said Dittmar in an interview with Voice of America about the results of the 2018 midterms. “I think we play a role in saying, ‘No, this is something that can continually be done,’ and this year can actually set the foundation for a trend in which we see more women running each year.”
Marketers, dare to believe that change has arrived for women. Shed those vague stereotypes, such as Soccer Mom and Angry College-Educated Woman, because they’re merely fleeting impressions created by a glib soundbite, a 30-second ad or a hashtag.
More work remains to be done, but the new narrative for women in charge will be rooted in opportunity, not novelty.
I’m Every Woman
In the days following the 2018 election, Americans are witnessing the unfolding of stories that transcend gender.
The record-setting roster of female legislators includes the first two Muslim congresswomen; the first two Native-American congresswomen; the first two Hispanic congresswomen from Texas; the first black congresswomen from Massachusetts and Connecticut; the first black senator from Tennessee; and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The 116th Congress will include 43 women of color and five who identify as LGBTQ.
After decades of settling for stereotypes, at last marketers can capture the rich, diverse experiences of American women as decision makers.
Public perceptions of business leaders are also pivoting. The Pew Research Center’s Women and Leadership 2018 study found that majorities of Americans view men and women as equally fit for key aspects of corporate leadership (percentages indicate those who see no difference):
- Providing fair pay and good benefits (66 percent)
- Valuing people from different backgrounds (62 percent)
- Negotiating profitable deals (61 percent)
Why wait until those statistics hit 100 percent? We’ve reached the inflection point with a public ready for fresh perspectives about women.
Marketers are well-positioned to reveal finer dimensions of women’s lives and work experiences – with business communicators leading the way.
With highly defined audiences, longer sales cycles and high-value transactions, B2B marketers have typically focused on relationships first. There simply aren’t any shortcuts in understanding customer needs.
Capturing subtle nuances requires sound research practices. Customer “personas,” fictional depictions that serve as models to inform communications strategy, have been widely used by marketers. However, it’s not enough to collect age, gender, race, income, occupation, education, and location. Nor does it suffice to scrape data from existing transactions to produce flimsy profiles.
Figuring out who the decision maker is and what she wants starts with uncovering the “how, when, where and why” she chooses certain goods, services or issues over others. Personas are based on gathering evidence — real experiences around choices and individual motivations of women – through surveys, interviews and direct observation. Ask meaningful questions before telling or selling.
Whether building a representative democracy or competing for market share, broad strokes won’t be enough to win women’s votes anymore. Once and for all, let’s shed the labels and get personal.