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What Do Women Want? Recent Attempts at Gender Equity Might Get It Wrong

February 08, 2021


What Do Women Want? Recent Attempts at Gender Equity Might Get It Wrong

Recently, a car commercial gave me pause. It didn’t catch my eye because I wanted the car, and it wasn’t anything that was particularly groundbreaking. In fact, what got me was how many car commercials I’ve seen like it lately.

Picture this: there’s a shiny new SUV speeding over an empty stretch of lonely highway. The text tells us all about the power behind this vehicle, shown by it towing a couple of well-used ATVs. Clearly, whoever’s driving this vehicle is down for adventure.

Then we cut into the cabin and—surprise!—it’s a woman in the driver’s seat.

And that’s the reason this commercial got me thinking. Lately, I’ve seen tons of “gender-flipped” ads, but … is that what women (or men) really want? And the more I thought about it, the more I thought … we might have got it wrong.

Pitching Outdated Stereotypes

Before we get into why barking up this particular tree might be wrong, let’s look at why companies are “flipping” the gender script.

We can definitely blame Gen Z for this one, if we want. They’re the most gender-diverse generation yet! At the same time, they’re not the first and they likely won’t be the last, either. Millennials also embraced more gender diversity. They were definitely onboard with the “girlboss” movement of the past decade.

It’s not hard to see why. More women than men are now on most college campuses. That, in turn, means they’re pursuing highly skilled and prestigious careers. And they are more focused on their careers: they’ve been putting off marriage and having kids.

We can also say that’s an effect of the labour market too—it’s tough to find a job. Because of the labour market squeeze, more couples find it necessary for both men and women to work. There are more women who are outearning their husbands, and stay-at-home dads are on the rise. And men and women are starting to share household chores and childcare more equally, especially during the pandemic.

None of this is exactly new, either. Baby Boomers led the way for women into the workplace in the 1970s, and Gen X was raised on the “grrrrl power” of the 1990s. Millennials and Gen Z are just picking up where we left off.

What this translates to is women who aren’t interested in “stereotypical” portrayals. And car companies and others are sensing sea change here—or at least a new market they haven’t tried appealing to recently. The thought here is likely that “our ads are too masculine,” so it discourages women buyers.

What the Ads Get Right

There are two things I think the ads do well. One, they recognize that women are key buyers—in the driver’s seat, so to speak. So, they are attempting to appeal to that market.

They also have recognized that attitudes have changed. That’s an important point. The bigger problem is that they haven’t sent the revamped message out in a way that is actually speaking to the audience they’re trying to reach.

Where They Go Wrong

All these ads do is flip the gender script—to an extent. Instead of a man in the driver’s seat, we’ve got a “powerful” (yet still conventionally beautiful) woman. She likes adventure, and she’s not afraid to get dirty, as her ATVs show us. She’s a confident driver, and she’s ready to hit the road.

This does not make me want to buy the car! I’m a career woman, and I take my Sea-doo and boat places by hauling it around with my SUV. I loved the freedom I felt driving my Harley Davidson Heritage Softail. You’d think I would be the exact target market for this ad. This ad is saying, “Oh, look, you could be her.”

Except, I don’t particularly care to be this woman they’ve put in the driver’s seat. All they’ve done here is flip the script—without talking to women and seeing what kind of messaging they want to see. (I prefer the ads that show me a tough guy with his tough truck, thanks.)

The same is true with ads focused on cooking. So often now, we get guys in the kitchen, guys preparing meals for their kids with no wife in site? And yes, that takes the stereotype of “the wife prepares the meal” and tosses it out the window. But … is this actually what men or women want to see? How do men feel about seeing these guys in the kitchen, and then the girlfriend/wife walks in all like, “ooh, whatcha making?”

It’s a simple reversal of the gender script. It doesn’t account for the different attitudes men and women have to these activities. Where’s the guy making himself a nutritious meal to help him recover from a hard workout session? Where’s the guy making pizza and wings for his bros when they come over for game night?

The car commercials do the same thing: they don’t actually show us how women interact with these vehicles. Where’s the mom taking her kids to soccer practice, then hitting her 9 am meeting? Where’s her and her friends escaping for a girls weekend?

The long and short of this is that these ads keep the same structure and just shoehorn in a person of the opposite sex. They don't change anything about the narrative or messaging.

Is that actually what women want? Or, if we look at the commercials for food or cookware or kitchen utensils, is that what men want?

Missing the Mark with Messaging?

The writing seems to be on the wall that people’s ideas about what’s masculine or feminine are changing, to a degree. That doesn’t mean that men don’t want to feel masculine or that women don’t want to feel feminine. So putting women into the “masculine” role might be missing the mark. It’s not that women want to be masculine or that men don’t want to be masculine—it’s redefining what those things are.

So men may absolutely want to be in the kitchen, and that’s great. But they probably don’t want to feel like they traded places with Susy Homemaker, the traditionally “feminine”role. Why do some brands want men to feel almost emasculated at the cost of trying to be “on trend”?

Same with women in car commercials fulfilling the “masculine” role. We might be redefining what it means to be “a woman,” but that doesn’t mean at the cost of making men feel less.

So flipping the script here isn’t going to speak to the values and needs of men and women. It’ll miss the mark with both older people (who might have more traditional views) andyounger people (who are more likely to reject a strict gender binary anyway)!

This is a boardroom solution to gendered marketing. It feels like someone asked, “How can we show empowered women?” or “how can we make sure we’re not stereotyping?”

What we need to do when we’re aware our audience’s perceptions are shifting or their values are changing is go back to those people. Ask the women who actually bought your SUV why they considered and chose it. I’m thinking here of a recent OLG ad for a winner who bought herself a truck, and she specifically said in the ad, “This is a girl’s truck.” Or let’s think about how the Ford Mustang was first marketed to women—the stylish, affordable ride to the grocery store! These days, the Mustang is considered masculine—a classic “muscle car.” So at some point, the marketing shifted—likely in response to who was actually buying the car.

The point here is we have to think about who is buying the car and why they buy the car. Someone who buys a “girl’s truck” is looking for something different than the hyper-masculine Dodge Ram. But what is “a girl’s truck”? It’s not just a truck that has a female driver.

And the Mustang—the marketing team at Ford in the 1960s thought this was a girly car, but the market looked at it and said, no! It’s not! So again, we have to listen to the people who are actually buying the vehicle. Why do they buy, what do they see in what they’re getting? Are they buying a “girl’s truck”? And what does that mean?

You’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this: we need to listen to our audience! Just swapping gender roles isn’t enough—at this point, it’s probably not want anybody wants! So instead of this kind of “boardroom solution,” let’s talk to our audience, our actual customers. If we want to represent our women buyers or appeal to them, then we should be asking them about why they buy our product, what they love about our brand. That will give us more insight into what actually appeals to them—and how we can actually represent them on the screen.

So, like always, it comes back to the why—why are we here, and why do our customers buy from us? Remember to start with the why and you’ll get a lot further!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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