Why you should care
Because if you build it, she will come. And if she builds it, that’s even better.
Draw a person.
Or, if you don’t have a pen and paper handy, just think about the person you might draw. I’ll give you a moment.
Is the figure small? Large? Flamboyant? Shy? And which gender is it? Your own? Psychologists have been administering the “draw a person” test for almost a century, for a variety of purposes. And one of the most interesting findings to emerge is that 70 to 80 percent of people, of both sexes and in every population tested, draw a figure of the same gender as themselves.
And, according to a growing body of research, that test only scratches the surface of the very real differences in how the vast majority of men and women see the world around them. Gender doesn’t just influence the types of designs that you draw, but your preferences too: Both men and women tend to prefer designs created by members of their own gender. The dichotomy has enormous implications for the world of commerce, from grocery store aisles to flash-fashion apps. Tailoring products, services and websites to the design preferences of the female consumers who dominate that world could revolutionize advertising and design — if those male-run professions will let it.
Why aren’t ad agencies and companies jumping over themselves to hire more female designers?
“The consumer is not a moron; she’s your wife,” advertising pioneer David Ogilvy famously quipped. Advertising agencies, however, have tended to pay more attention to the “moron” part than the “she” part. Women may account for about 80 percent of spending decisions globally, and more than $20 trillion in spending, but those responsible for the websites, advertising and overall design of the commercial landscape surrounding those decisions have long been — and still are — overwhelmingly dudes.
Take advertising. Some 80 percent of creatives, product designers and execs are men. Then there’s Web design and software development, where the disparity is yet starker: One recent survey found that more than 92 percent of software developers are male. The result is pretty much foregone — male-driven advertisements, products and designs, even for products and websites that serve female customers. One might be tempted to conclude that the largely male executives attempting to cater to their female customers are just troglodytes living in the Stone Age. But, in another sense, they are ignoring the Stone Age entirely, and at their own peril.
That’s because a growing body of evidence points to some key sex differences in visual-spatial skills, differences that some researchers believe are a direct by-product of the division of labor in the hunter-gatherer societies that characterized most of human history. Because our male ancestors needed to hunt, navigate and see distant horizons in low visibility, men tend to have better spatial rotation and navigation, as well as higher rates of color blindness (which helps see through camouflage). Women, it is claimed, developed heightened object-location memory and color vision, to help find edible food. These differences don’t apply to every individual, of course, and, yes, they are pretty heteronormative. But some of the evidence is compelling. Did you know, for example, that many women possess an additional cone in their eyes, letting them detect millions of colors unknown to men?
Such differences allow us to speak of “hunter” and “gatherer” vision, says Gloria Moss, a professor of marketing and management at Buckinghamshire New University. She’s taken what she calls the “new science of perception” even further, exploring the implications that biological differences have for the design preferences of men and women. Her recent book, Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots, says that women tend to prefer more color, rounded shapes, curved lines and more detail (think polka dots and a whole spectrum of colors), while men prefer straight lines, fewer (and darker) colors and less detail. But, even more interesting, Moss and her colleagues repeatedly found, in studies looking at websites and graphic and product designs, that, as she tells OZY, “women have a very strong preference for visuals created by people of their own gender, as do men.”
Clearly, pleasing a customer visually bolsters her engagement with a product, her attraction to it. So why aren’t ad agencies and companies jumping over themselves to hire more female designers? Many are just not aware of the new research, says Moss, and wading into the waters of biological sex differences — as illustrated by the Larry Summers controversy — still makes many uncomfortable. Mostly, though, it’s just a question of inertia in what are still largely male professions. “People in power are not easily persuaded that they should step aside because someone else may have a better approach,” says longtime ad man Thomas Jordan, former chairman and chief creative officer of HY Connect. “It’s human nature. Most men are not evil … they are just clueless.”
This is not to say men cannot effectively market to women, but the future will mean more products for women that are created and designed by women, and it will belong to those firms, says Jordan, who can fill their ranks with talented female creatives and “let them think, act and create as women.” Stephanie Holland, a marketing expert and author of the She-conomy blog, agrees. For now, agencies that “empower creative women” have an edge, she says. But “in the future, it will become a necessity.”