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Insights / June 25, 2015

How Not to Cry at Work, or Why Marketers Keep Getting it Wrong When it Comes to Women

By Abby Breyer

A former colleague of mine (male) used to receive emails from a professional association that hosted monthly events targeted toward women. The fact that he received these emails was entertaining enough, but then he would forward them to me with commentary: “WOW! Great event!” or “As a woman, you won’t want to miss this one!” and we’d have a good laugh because he was funny and they were horrible.

I mean, truly horrible. Like “Tips for keeping your emotions in check in the workplace!” horrible. Because you know how women are, we just can’t help but emote all over the place!

Around the same time, I started getting a complimentary (and wholly unwanted) subscription to a local professional women’s magazine. A glossy magazine delivered to my office with my name on it that splashed headlines like “Dressing for Success!” and “We Found It: The Best Mascara!” over glamour shots of successful local business women.

Can I tell you how excited I was for that to arrive at my place of business, where I was already fighting to convey my worth to an aging male superior who called me “kiddo” and asked me to take notes in every meeting where I was the only woman present?

I’d probably have 10 more stories like this to share if I thought a bit longer. The problem doesn’t just lie with this brand of gross, over-the-top marketing, however.

The real problem lies in the misguided belief that offering women-specific communications and events somehow supports gender equality.

Recently, the team at Software for Good had a discussion about the title of a event targeted toward women. I attended, and it was excellent. But our team’s reaction to the name was a collective “ick.” It wasn’t disrespectful, it wasn’t negative or sexist. It simply used a feminine prefix as part of the name, and it didn’t sit well with our team.

After some ruminating, I finally figured out why it bothered me so much:

An all-female lineup of speakers makes an event “female.” An all-male lineup of speakers makes an event…an event.

How likely do you think men are to attend an event with a female prefix? About as likely as they are to pick up a business magazine with mascara tips on the cover. Which is unfortunate, because men could learn a few things from the successful women of the world. Just as women could learn a few things from the successful men of the world.

Or, you know. People could learn a few things from the successful people of the world.

When it comes to women, why is professional development so often tied to gender? Why does a cover story touting the success of an intelligent businesswoman have to be tempered with beauty tips? And why can’t a technology conference featuring a lineup of female speakers be a technology event vs. a female technology event?

Gendered marketing isn’t doing us any favors. Here are three reasons why it harms our efforts to foster equality in the workplace:

1. Gendered marketing reinforces stereotypes.

I’m the only mother at Software for Good. That means I can’t make last-minute happy hours and most days I have to leave in time to pick up my children (Fun fact: schools and daycares require you to pick up your kids at the end of the day, even on days when the client is only available to meet at 5pm! Crazy, right?). Yes, this is the enormous difference between me and everyone else. Now where is my special lady magazine?

Having a family doesn’t keep me from doing my job. Sure, the needs of my children impede upon my work day at times, but so do my colleagues’ sick pets and car troubles and doctor’s appointments. You know, life. It happens, and there’s nothing gender-specific about it. But gender-based marketing suggests there must be something more to it. Why else would we need our own magazines and events? Women must need things that our male colleagues don’t know about, a super-secret list of special requirements necessary to our success. Something complicated requiring them to handle us with kid gloves, perhaps? And that sounds scary and time-consuming and like it might just cost the company a lot of money, so yikes. Better to avoid the ladies altogether, right?

You know what I need to be successful? Headphones and wifi.

2. Gendered marketing furthers the divide in male-dominated industries like tech.

If the only opportunities we have to talk about the issues we face as women are with other women, how can we expect change? We need to have these conversations among a broader audience, and labeling an event “female” ensures that will not happen. You know how many men showed up to the event I mentioned above? Less than ten by my count. Which is a real shame, because the women who presented were brilliant.

To be clear: I’m all for women organizing events or founding associations that center around mentorship and encourage young women to pursue careers in male-dominated industries like tech. But “women” has almost become an industry buzzword, a hot topic that every marketer feels the need to jump on, much like they did with social media a decade ago. If we talk about women in tech, people will think we care about equality! If we offer paid maternity leave, we’ll be considered forward-thinking! If we host an event for women, we’ll be doing our part to build a stronger, more inclusive industry!

The reality? Thoughtfully building a diverse team based on skill and shared passion shows you care about equality. Putting people-centric policies in place makes you forward-thinking. Creating opportunities for collaboration and communication among people of all backgrounds and levels of experience builds a stronger, more inclusive industry.

Stop talking about women to women. Start hiring women to work alongside men.

3. Gendered marketing limits learning…for everyone.

Know what I care about when it comes to my career? Growth. Efficiency. Productivity. Results. Development. Change. Innovation. Teamwork. Culture. Know what my male colleagues care about? The same. Not a single presenter at the event I referenced talked about fashion or motherhood. They talked about securing funding, building teams, getting publicity, exit strategies. Already this week I’ve had multiple opportunities to share their wisdom with my male colleagues. I wish they’d been there. But here’s the conversation that took place among my coworkers in Slack a week before the event:

Male Colleague 1: “Is this only for women?”
Male Colleague 2: “Is what?”
Male Colleague 1: “The [event name] thing.”
Male Colleague 2: “Yeah, I think it’s mainly for women to attend but they aren’t going to turn men away.”
Female Colleague: “You should go if you are interested in it. The speaker list is really great.”

I think he would have attended if tickets hadn’t been sold out, so I give Anonymous Male Colleague 1 credit for that. But the name of the event made the males in our organization feel as though there was nothing there for them. A missed opportunity, for sure.

So, what do we do?

Sure, we can (and should) stop gendered marketing. But there’s no cure-all, no single fix that addresses the issue of gender equality in tech or any other industry. There’s only progress. Small steps by organizations and individuals who are bold enough to do things differently.

Women who are willing to say “I don’t need this. I don’t want this. And here’s why.”

Men who are willing to say “Why is this only for women? What does that mean? Tell me more. I want to understand.”

Organizations that are willing to say “I see your talent. I’m going to fairly compensate you for it. And I’m going to expect great things from you.”

Industries that are willing to say “Let’s invite marginalized groups to share their experiences, listen to what they have to say, and work toward change as a team.”

Women don’t want special magazines or lady events or to be treated with kid gloves. We want the respect of our peers and the confidence of our employers.

Let’s do better. Together.