The Blog

Time for Gatherers to Have More Clout in the Boardroom!

Think women, think retail. Women do 83% of the shopping and buy 96% of beauty products, 93% of food, 92% of holidays, 60% of all new cars and 55% of home computers. So are women crowded into board rooms to offer their perspective? Not exactly. In 2011, women held just 16.1 % of board seats at Fortune 500 companies and 15% of FTSE 100 companies in 2012.

Think women, think retail. Women do 83% of the shopping and buy 96% of beauty products, 93% of food, 92% of holidays, 60% of all new cars and 55% of home computers. They buy the bulk of petrol and small electrical goods and not surprisingly, Paco Underhill, the expert on retail behaviour with a client list as long as your arm, is clear on one thing. 'Shopping is still and almost always will be meant mostly for females. Shopping is female' ( 1999). The consequences? Paco warns ominously that 'Women are capable of consigning species of retailer or product to Darwin's dustbin if that retailer is unable to adapt to what women need and want'.

Michael Silverstein, principal consultant at the Boston Consulting group, describes women as 'the chief purchasing agent of the family in a female economy worth $5 trillion of incremental spending over the next several years, a figure that dwarfs the commercial potential represented by the growth of the consumer economics of India and China. So pleasing women is at the heart of what a lot of companies should be doing and Silverstein shows the prize awaiting companies who do just this: 'the Companies that really get women and respond to their unmet needs with skill, nuance and genuine engagement will enjoy breakaway growth, unprecedented customer loyalty and category dominance'.

So are women crowded into board rooms to offer their perspective? Not exactly. In 2011, women held just 16.1 % of board seats at Fortune 500 companies and 15% of FTSE 100 companies in 2012, with a high proportion of these being non-executive appointments, in other words women parachuted in and not part of the organisation's decision-making processes. Research over many years, summarised in my book Gender, Design and Marketing, shows that men and women's design preferences are poles apart (with just a small proportion of men and women bucking this trend) with experiments I've conducted in many design disciplines revealing each gender to have a massive tendency to prefer designs produced those of their own gender. Men's preferences are for straight lines, little detail and few colours and women for rounded shapes and lots of detail and colours. Huge differences in men and women's visual-spatial skills, with up to 50% of women having an additional colour pigment giving access to hundreds of millions more colours than men perceive and men having superior visuo-rotational skills and a higher incidence of colour blindness (offering the ability to see through camouflage) suggest that the differences are hard-wired from Stone Age, hunter/gatherer days. So, at present, you have hunters designing for gatherers.

Is this optimal? Not according to Patrick Ballin, Lecturer in Retail Management at The University of Brighton and well established retail consultant. He describes the finding that women prefer designs produced by other women as profound, adding that: 'We know that the product assortment, merchandising and store design all affect shopper behaviour; yet these choices are largely decided by men, with an unconscious bias towards their own male preferences. The more retailers can build in an understanding of different gender preferences, setting out their stall the way their shoppers like best, the better their results are likely to be'.

He has a point. According to a US report in 2004 on Consumer Electronics, a meagre 1 per cent of women thought that manufacturers had them in mind when creating products (CEA, 2004). The women were also unhappy with the way that products were sold to them with nearly three-quarters of women in the survey complaining about being ignored, patronized or offended by sales people when shopping for electronics. A similar finding arose from research on the Kotex brand which revealed women across Europe perceiving brands in the sector to be 'designed and marketed by men' (Lorenz 2005). So women's dissatisfaction can extend to product design, sales and marketing and according to a 1,000-respondent study by Greenfield Online for Arnold's Women's Insight Team (Van der Pool 2002), a massive 91 per cent of women do not think that advertisers understand them. Even worse, the majority of women were angry at how advertisers portrayed them.

The high street

A CBI survey in February 2013 showed that food shop sales reached a five-year low and the horse-meat scandal can only party be blamed given a record high 11.3% vacancy rate of high street shops in the UK in January. What is more, the Government's high street Tsar, Mary Portas, was appointed to head up an initiative to revive the high street and a Daily Mail article last month described this as descending into farce (see The comments quoted there of a Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman were hardly reassuring with the promise of 'getting empty shops back into use as pop up shops and student cafes, creating discount schemes and loyalty cards for high streets and working with local universities and bus companies to bring students back into the town centre'. Since when have cash-starved students been the key to a financial revival? Does he have any clue that it is women who hold the key to the high street revival? Why are we not seeing focus groups with women as a central plank in high street revival? At present, the progress of women in retail management positions has been slow according to Adelina Broadbridge, Lecturer in the Institute for Retail Studies, Department of Marketing at the University of Stirling, and so taking our cue direct from women is imperative.

The lessons could revolutionise thinking. I recently conducted a survey of men and women's in-store design preferences, finding that men and women's responses were poles apart. An overwhelming 75% of men, for example, approved of a rail of clothes whose colours did not blend, compared to 35% of women. Shown colours that blended, just 16% of men said it appealed greatly to them, as compared with a massive 79% of women. By analogy, 67% of men liked a linear arrangement of jeans compared to only 36% of women, and when it comes to detail a similar polarisation occurred. So a pink beauty counter with detailing appealed to a massive 86% of women but only 8% of men. The problem is that a lot of shop layouts are designed by men, even where the discerning consumers are female. Research has shown that women are responsible for 83% of all consumer purchases with men responsible for just 17%. Just getting this right could reap substantial dividends for retailers and that is without considering the quality of the designs in our shops. So much could be done, whether it's furniture, electrical products or home produce packaging to make the design more appealing for women.

Then there is the whole issue of parking. Women are juggling multiple lives - doing the bulk of shopping and child care - and having easy access to parking on the high street would do a lot to entice them there away from the lure of the stress-free hypermarket lot. How many of us have hesitated to go into a shop on the high street because of the hassle of parking? Let women do the gathering but industries worldwide need to build them into the decision-making process.

Dr Gloria Moss is Reader in Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University. She is the author of Gender, Design and Marketing and advises companies on targeting women. For more details, see