Redefining Gender May 2013
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Many companies rely on demographics to understand shifting trends in society. Others use demographic profiles to identify target markets for their products and services. For example, Dr Pepper Snapple Group (Plano, Texas) recently launched Dr Pepper 10, a diet soda that specifically targets men with the slogan "Not for Women" and a set of satirical commercials that feature overly masculine men drinking the beverage in the wilderness and other similarly inhospitable settings. The company developed the new beverage in response to its finding that diet soda typically fails to appeal to men.
An equalization of the life expectancies of men and women will likely have a complex set of consequences.
Companies that define their target markets in terms of easily accessible demographic categories rely tacitly on the stability of the size and definition of those categories. Stable definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman, for example, are at the heart of many gender-based decisions. Substantial deviations from seemingly well-understood definitions can have significant strategic implications. This article outlines several important shifts in societies' understanding of gender and the effects those shifts could have on a wide variety of organizations.
In many countries, gender-based decision making is subject to government regulation, and shifts in regulations quickly affect company strategy. For example, a European Court of Justice ruling that came into effect in December 2012 prohibits insurance firms from discriminating against men or women when pricing insurance policies. Specifically, although women generally have fewer accidents than men do, automobile-insurance firms will no longer be able to charge them less than they charge men, and health-insurance firms will not be able to use the difference in longevity between the sexes as a reason to charge women higher premiums than they charge men. Regulation-imposed equality can benefit individuals when their risk profiles become uncoupled from group statistics that have a negative impact on the individual. Organizations need to apply more fine-grained predictors of risk than simply applying the broad stroke of gender.
In addition to regulation-imposed equality, naturally occurring shifts in attitudes and behaviors between the sexes exist. Relating to automobile insurance in the United States, more women than men now have driver's licenses, according to a University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan) Transportation Research Institute study of driver's-license data from between 1995 and 2010. The trend reversal in the licensing of drivers since the 1950s seems to be the result of a number of economic and cultural factors and will likely have—because of the changing composition of the market—a host of consequences, including an increasing demand for smaller, safer, more fuel-efficient cars; changes in demand for fuel; and a decrease in the number of fatal accidents per vehicle mile driven. Car companies will need to develop in-depth profiles of different types of female drivers to target their offerings more effectively.
Relating to health insurance, Les Mayhew, a professor of statistics at Cass Business School (London, England) and advisor to the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics (Newport, Wales), analyzed changes in the life expectancies of 30-year-olds that occurred over time. Dr. Mayhew predicts that men's life expectancy should equalize with women's in the United Kingdom by 2030 if current trends continue. He posits that increases in male life expectancy in the United Kingdom are the result of several factors, including decreases in smoking among the male population, improvements in heart-disease treatments, and men's taking safer jobs. An equalization of the life expectancies of men and women will likely have a complex set of consequences. Increases in male longevity may raise the overall cost of health care in a society, to name just one such consequence.
Yet another recent gender-related change represents the increasing economic power of women. A survey by Prudential Financial (Newark, New Jersey) indicates that 53% of women (including single women) now shoulder the primary financial responsibility for a household's—their own and their families'—income. But of those women, only 10% state that they consider themselves very knowledgeable about financial services and products. The study also showed that female breadwinners are only half as likely to feel well prepared to make sensible financial decisions as their male counterparts are. US women's emerging key role as economic providers will require financial-services institutions to revisit who they are targeting with their various financial products and how they are addressing their customers.
Studies are also showing a decreasing gap between men and women on measures of cognitive ability. A new study by scientists at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina) analyzed the standardized-test results of more than 1.7 million US high-school students who completed the exams between 1981 and 2010. This study shows that the gap between the number of the smartest males and the number of the smartest females has shrunk significantly. In the early 1980s, about 13 men to every 1 woman scored in the top 0.01% on the math portion of the SAT. By the early 1990s, that gap had shrunk considerably to 4 to 1. Such drastic changes in such a short amount of time point to the influence of environmental factors; however, the exact nature of these influences is unknown. A decreasing cognitive-ability gap between men and women will likely result in rapid changes in the types of talents that men and women bring to the table, which will have implications for human-resource management. Already, girls outperform boys on science exams in many developed countries, according to a recent study of 15-year-olds conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Paris, France). However, in the United States, boys still outperform girls, pointing to the potential influence of negative cultural stereotypes concerning the performance of women in domains of science.
Further documenting a closing gender gap, the Credit Suisse Research Institute (Credit Suisse; Zurich, Switzerland) conducted a study that tracked 2360 global companies for the past six years. The study found that companies with one or more women on the board performed better financially than companies with all-male boards. The inclusion of women on a company's management board may indicate resiliency. Furthermore, women may bring diverse (and adaptive) leadership styles to the table and share useful information more openly than men do.
The diminishing role of men as decision makers, intellectual leaders, and financial providers raises important questions about whether the definition of what it means to be male is changing permanently. Certainly, the definition of what it means to be a woman has changed drastically since the 1950s. Gender roles are, of course, culturally determined, and no single answer to these questions exists. Countries with strongly held beliefs about gender roles will see change much more slowly than will countries in which gender roles are less rigidly defined, and the speed at which these changes occur will have varying implications for organizations that include gender profiles in their strategic planning.