It is very dangerous in the 21st century for an aging man to talk about the changing status of women. A few years ago, I wrote a book, “What Women Want,” on the topic and then hid under my desk. The book did well, now available in 14 languages. One of the feminist reviewers for a major American newspaper said in her review, “I picked this book up expecting to hate it – in the end it was mostly funny and sometimes funny uncomfortable.” So please take what I have written below with the best of intentions.
Female Decision Makers
The most seminal event in the history of the human species since the taming of fire has been the broad acceptance of birth control. Sex and procreation have been uncoupled. The hormonal issues of both young (and not so young) women and men have been moved to a completely different place. Across every corner of the first world, the decision to have children and when to have them has fundamentally shifted. I make no moral or religious judgment — as the step-father of teenage girls I have no pulpit other than the powers of observation and my innate guard-dog instincts.
How many of us know woman having their first child in their thirties or even early forties? Most women have the choice of starting/pursuing a career before motherhood. When family and motherhood kick-in, the glass ceiling issues get real and the working woman has to make tough choices. Census data in the U.S. points to the first time in the history of the census that single adults outnumber married adults. In the role of retail pundit, the implications of the birth control evolution are profound. At risk of offending many – pet ownership has exploded as many realize that simple, unconditional love and affection is easier and a cheaper to get on four legs than multiples of two.
Female Intelligence Quotient
Across much of the developing world the number of women in institutions of higher learning has increased dramatically. Beyond fashion and teaching, in traditionally male-dominated professions like pharmacy, medicine, business, and law, the percentage of female students is often over 50 percent. Only in engineering do males continue to dominate, but that too is changing. The glass ceiling in terms of pay is still very real, but in most major first-world cities a 28-year-old working female is out-earning her male counterpart. She is better educated, is harder working and often just has a better job.
Traditional male-dominated professions like construction trades or transportation, while they still exist, thanks to modern engineering and technology the need for a mostly male workforce is reduced. Even in the armed forces, gender roles have shifted. I am told that a third of the Predator pilots flying the deadly drones over the Middle East are female – where manual dexterity and not big muscles govern their effectiveness. The future of the male gender is another topic for another time and book.
Female Buying Proposition
Historically in retail we sold women clothing, food and cosmetics. Today we need to sell them everything. In the tech world, men buy computers and mobile phones for themselves. Women buy them for their own use, but also for their children, often their parents and for their offices: The typical office manager is female. For the most part, the selling proposition for women isn’t the tech inside (what does 5G really mean) but the implication of how tech can help manage the human side of their lives. It may mean saving time or how it facilities communication. They would rather buy that tech from a female nerd than a male nerd who often belittles their lack of knowledge or tech interest. The big shift here? For telecom and technology shops, there is a direct connection to the percentage of females working the floor and the success of the shop. The small hardware chains like Ace compete with Home Depot and Lowe’s not on price, but of the friendliness of their service to typically less informed but interested customers. Again, in those three hardware chains, the presence of female associates is key to their success.
The automotive industry has also learned that in the purchase of a family car, if the female doesn’t rule, she certainly has veto power. How do you sell a car to a woman? It isn’t just the color, horsepower, performance or price. It may also be safety features, the usability of the control panel, family- and female-designed features and reputation for reliability.
In the modern home, the role of the kitchen, bathroom and the laundry room has been heavily influenced by the perceptions, needs and aspirations of women. I’ve worked in the global model home industry and with appliance manufacturers, and it has become clear that in our modern world it takes two incomes to support a middle-class lifestyle. Therefore, home design and space allocation have to take into effect the impact of multi-tasking working women. In other words, if the woman still has to do all the laundry for her household, give her an attractive place to do it with smart machines designed for her and plenty of tech-enabled features so she can continue to do her day job at the same time.
Female At-Work Style
Now to the tough part. The working uniform for men has changed little in past two decades. A man can wear the same basic shirt and trousers every day; jackets and ties have become cast-offs for most professions. The standing rule for most non-tech jobs is clean and utilitarian. The process of getting dressed for work every morning is pretty simple. For the male entering the job market the cost of uniforms is modest. Someone told me that Bill Gates still does most of his shopping out of the Land’s End catalog. I don’t know if it’s true, but in every picture of him I see he looks like a Land’s End poster child. For most men, outside of the startup culture, Men’s Warehouse and their cousins can dress that young lawyer or marketing executive – their uniform is about blending in, not standing out.
For the young working female, particularly in conservative professions, getting ready to enter the work force is a potentially more expensive proposition. If they work at a bank or other uniform-based job, yes they need outfits that are non-attention getting. Conservative style plays well in a law office, insurance company and even a marketing agency. They can define their personal style by their accessories – but they are still judged by a completely different standard than men, based on their apparel. It isn’t fair, but it is real.
One of the struggles we have had with our female fashion retail clients is to be more empathetic with their working female customers. One glaring deficit is their approach to visual merchandising and in-store presentation. How can they better embrace a young woman’s working uniform needs? An easy way to start is in the imagery. Marketing photography can take in the visual cues of the modern working woman: a laptop tote, handbags that protect mobile phones, and models exuding confidence and competence. Offering a range of work apparel that can move from day to night is a way to build both ticket and earning loyalty. Once she finds a place to buy her work uniforms, she tends to stick. The big money in 2019 in fashion for females is paying attention to needs for Monday through Friday and not getting lost in Saturday night.
It can get even more fun. If Macy’s, Nordstrom and Bloomie’s turned on their marketing engines for graduation season – the best graduation gift for that young female MBA is a gift certificate and personalized style consultation. Call it a shortcut to enhance her work style value to help pay off that outrageous student loan.
The future of consumption is tied to the changing role of women. With each passing month, the number of households where the woman is dominant breadwinner increases. Addressing the reality of pay disparities is in our broader economic interests. Testing prototype stores for over 35 years has impressed upon me the power of the “female friendly” lens. Let’s face it, in reality, if it works well for women it works well for everybody.