07/28/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

What's the Stink About Pink?

Sergei Popov via Getty Images

I saw a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal about a shopping mall in China unveiling 10 parking spots for women only -- the 10 spots are wider and painted pink. Some suggested the wider parking spots were to help women carry children in and out of cars, others suggested women needed wider parks because they are bad drivers.

There are other similar examples. A Time article from 2009 , discussed the 5,000 parking spots in Seoul that were painted pink and designated for women only. This was part of a broader program introduced in 2007 called "Happy Women, Happy Seoul", with a focus on mothers of young children and unemployed women. Objectives of the Seoul initiative included paving streets to make them high-heel friendly, adding more public day care centers and building more public restrooms for women. Another example is from Triberg, Germany (2012) where two parking spaces were designated men-only because they were " tricky" and required difficult maneuvering. Oh my.

There are a number of related issues layered into this debate -- the use of pink and the use of stereotypes. In my latest book: Why Marketing To Women Doesn't Work, I offer four primary recommendations. One recommendation is to avoid gender washing and therefore the tendency to stereotype women. Another recommendation is to acknowledge gender convergence and the blurring of boundaries between traditionally male and female roles. Taking these two recommendations together reminds us of how dangerous it is to (1) assume only women are bad drivers, (2) assume women are the only people who transport children in cars and therefore appreciate extra parking space, (3) assume women are the only people who do the shopping and therefore appreciate extra parking space, (4) assume all women wear high shoes, (5) assume only women wearing high shoes need even paving on sidewalks, (6) assume only women need access to decent child care so they can work and (7) assume only men can manage difficult parking spaces (see (1) above)).

The use of pink plays into the use of stereotypes. I understand that marketers often "shrink it and pink it" to signal that the product is "female friendly" (either in an attempt to attract female customers or to better accommodate what are seen as specific needs of female consumers). Recent examples include: Bic Pens for Her, the Pink Box Cordless Drill, the Pink Box Tape Measure (both available at Home Depot), Mecanno and their Pink Tool Box ("A pink construction tool box to build very girly vehicles"). Or, the parking examples above.

So, pink becomes a signaling device. The problem is that we currently associate the color pink with characteristics that include feminine, tender, sweet, nice, friendship, compassion, nurturing, love, harmony and approachability. Pink hasn't always been seen in this way. In the 19th century, English boys wore pink ribbons because men wore red uniforms. But, for all intents and purposes, pink currently signals femininity and with that all of the stereotypical characteristics of being female. So, when marketers use pink to signal their products are "female friendly" they fall squarely into the trap of stereotyping women as being feminine, kind and nice. And so the use of pink not only risks alienating men but also insulting women.