Pink and blue boxes

Yasmin White
LDN - 25 Nov 2016
Yasmin White
Pink and blue boxes

Are you…?

a) Male
b) Female

This is a question that is commonly used throughout market and social research. Whether the research concerns favourite things to do whilst on holiday, or experiences with an energy provider, most research respondents immediately find themselves faced with this question.

So why do we ask this? Are the findings gleaned from this customary question genuinely insightful or just old, outdated and unnecessary?

Evidence is increasingly suggesting the latter might be the case and there are two key reasons as to why:

1. There’s a HUGE grey area

From a rational perspective we know that gender isn’t exactly black and white, there is a grey area in between which is neglected by posing a simple binary choice. Currently Facebook allows users to identify with 71 different identities (to a lesser extent Tinder now incorporates 37 genders ), examples of these include trans-female, pangender and genderless. As time progresses, the variations in gender and the definitions used to describe each are ever evolving. At the same time, companies and services are adopting these revolutionary changes. If banks are beginning to offer non-binary gender options when setting up an account and restaurants are including gender neutral toilets , why can’t market research allow for the varying gender options, or perhaps at least an ‘Other’ option?

2. The results gained have limited value (in fact, they could have a negative effect)

People can be introverted or extroverted, short or tall, blue eyed or brown eyed, but we insist on asking whether they are male or female whilst excluding the aforementioned attributes. So what are we actually hoping to understand with the gender question: a physical or an attitudinal difference? If it’s the latter, aren’t we better off capturing things like introversion and extroversion for example? Aren’t these a truer indicator of how people are likely to behave, as opposed to gender? Or do we believe gender embodies certain attitudinal leanings? On one side you could argue that yes, it does. There are constantly significant differences in research when it comes to gender. A recent survey on planned future shopping purchases, conducted by Verve, suggests that more men are planning to buy smart products but are less likely to buy flowers and women plan to shop more for washing machines and are more likely to buy flowers. The list of notable comparisons is endless, so yes, the gender question has the power to find something.

But what actually is the finding? Why are women more likely to say they will buy a washing machine in the future for example? Surely they don’t actually need to wash their clothes more than men? Instead, are they being primed for their subsequent answers through the sheer act of assigning themselves to a gender? By this I mean they are behaving in a way that matches an unconscious stereotype, i.e. women are the homemakers, the ones who wash and clean and hence they are the ones to plan for the washing machine purchase.

(And just to be clear at this stage, this is not a cry for product neutrality where it isn’t needed, men will never have a need for sanitary products and women are less likely to need facial razors.)

In support of this argument numerous psychological studies have found that pre-defined stereotypes can have a huge influence over behaviour. Take for example a study by Spencer, Steele and Quinn (1998) which found that women perform substantially worse on a maths test than equally qualified men, if they are told prior that men perform better on the test. This effect was completely eradicated when the group of women were told that the test did not produce gender differences.

These findings and others suggest that the ‘washing machine research’ is essentially reflecting predefined social constructs of what it means to be a man or a woman. The problem then comes about when companies aim various products and services at specific demographics in order to drive sales. The argument here is that instead of the responses to the gender question used in market research being a useful insight that should be used to help drive sales; this information is potentially enforcing pre-conceived gender roles and maintaining the momentum of a continuous cycle. This continuous cycle preserves gender stereotypes and these stereotypes have the potential to impact a myriad of factors, including negatively influencing society and equality.

Stereotyping does still remain a useful tool, as it is cognitive shorthand used by our minds to allow for vast quantities of information to be adsorbed and ordered. But it cannot be denied that existing stereotypes such a ‘girls are weak’ or ‘boys aren’t emotional’ can have a negative influence on the way people feels about themselves and therefore on how they behave.

Maybe if we stopped asking about gender, and took less notice of this distinction, the harmful effects of stereotypical gender roles could be minimised. In fact, looking at the differences in people with regards to their personalities and behaviours rather than their demographics could glean the most insight after all. So why not revolutionise the way we look at people, and see them as different individuals, rather than people in pink and blue boxes?