THE BLOG
11/17/2014 09:22 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Madam Secretary, Gender and Power... and Implications when Marketing to Women

I have written before on the multiple and blurring roles of women, and the convergence of gender roles (see, for example, "Work Life Balance" or "The Changing Face of Women)." I want to continue with this theme by reflecting upon my new favorite television show, "Madam Secretary."

Sure, the main character is Elizabeth McCord aka Madam Secretary (and there is, after all, only one Secretary of State), but what I enjoy about the show is how Elizabeth's husband (who works as a Professor of Religion and dabbles in his former life as an NSA spy) supports her by taking on a lot of the domestic responsibilities. I enjoy watching Madam Secretary tune in and out of her children's issues during the day as this is something I completely resonate with. If you haven't seen the show, look at the " target="_hplink">trailer or the clip about the " target="_hplink"> family dynamic.

Madam Secretary certainly reminds us of women's progress. I came across a great quote from 1911 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman to capture the role of women in society 200 years ago.

... "all our human scheme of things rests on the same tacit assumption; man being held the human type; woman a sort of accompaniment and subordinate assistant, merely essential to the making of people. She has held always the place of a preposition in relation to man. She has always been considered above him or below him, before him, behind him, beside him, a wholly relative existence--"Sydney's sister," "Pembroke's mother"--but, never by any chance Sydney or Pembroke herself."

Gilman's writing presented men as "real" and women as "other" (Wingood and DiCLemente, 2000, p. 539). That is, women were "defined in terms of their functional significance to men rather than in terms of their own significance" (Wingood and DiCLemente, 2000 p. 540). This explains why gender equality was central to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Madam Secretary represents many women leaders today. Does Madam Secretary represent all women? Of course not. We know that women who end up in powerful positions are survivors who likely overcome a lot more obstacles on their way up than do their male counterparts (Ragins and Sundstrom, 1989). One view, therefore, is that women in powerful positions are very different from other women whereas men in powerful positions are often more similar to other men (Ragins and Sundstrom, 1989).

I also like the way in which Madam Secretary communicates to resolve problems. She collaborates, connects with people on a personal level, and goes around powerful figures such as the Chief of Staff. Madam Secretary is in a position of power so she can and does influence and change others. But some might say she exerts her power by communicating "like a woman." Research shows that female managers: encourage more participation, are more receptive to subordinates' ideas, are generally more encouraging, are more empathetic, are more concerned and caring, and are less direct and less likely to exert power than their male counterparts (Baird and Bradley, 1979; Eisenberg and Lennon, 1983; Josefowitz, 1980). The counterpoint to this, however, is that women communicate in a way that is expected of them and therefore they simply choose different forms of communication than do men (Larwood et al., 1980; Larwood and Gattiker, 1987).

What does this mean for marketing? My main takeaway is that as more women take on positions of leadership, the heterogeneity between women will continue to become more pronounced. It brings up the complex question then of: "What does it mean to be a woman today?" Marketers must take care to not only understand their own data on women as influencers, buyers and users of their products (see my recent blog on Marketing to Women) but to set realistic marketing to women goals that reflect women in society today by acknowledging their multiple roles and also the many differences between women. And, as I've mentioned previously, avoid gender stereotypes - stereotypes are simply bad practice.

References:
Baird, J. E., Jr., and Bradley, P. H. (1979). Styles of management and communication: A comparative study of men and women. Communication Monographs, 46, 101- 111.

Eisenberg, N., and Lennon, R. (1983). Sex differences in empathy and related capacities. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 100- 131.

Gilman, C.P. (1971). The Man-Made World: Or, Our Androcentric Culture. NY: Johnson, pp. 20-22 (Originally published in 1911).

Josefowitz, N. (1980). Management men and women: Closed vs. open door. Harvard Business Review, 58 56- 62.

Larwood, L., Radford, L. M., and Berger, D. (1980). Do job tactics predict success? A comparison of female with male executives in 14 corporations. Academy of Management Proceedings (pp. 386- 390). Detroit, MI: Academy of Management.

Larwood, L., and Gattiker, U. (1987). A comparison of the career paths used by successful women and men. In Gutek, B.A. an Larwood, L. (Eds.), Women's career development. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Ragins, B. R., and Sundstrom, E. (1989), Gender and power in organizations: A longitudinal perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 51-88

Wingwood, GM and DiClemente, R.J., (2000) Application of the Theory of Gender and Power to Examine HIV-Related Exposures, Risk Factors, and Effective Interventions for Women. Health Education and Behavior, 27, 539-565.