Today's Women: Power, Yet Expectations

There’s no doubt that today American women have more influence. They earn more college and master’s degrees than men and account for half of law and medical degrees; they held onto more jobs than men in the last recession; they have a strong presence in job categories expected to grow in the next decade; and economists forecast that they will earn more than men in comparable roles within the next 15 years.

Despite these statistics suggesting that females are reaping the benefits of the women’s movement, there are persistent expectations that afflict women across age groups. Women today still feel pressure to do it all, to look good while doing it, and to have people like them. Based on secondary research and supported by a survey we conducted, we found that these persistent expectations exist across generations -- from Millennials to Generation X to Baby Boomers. While these women grew up with distinct childhoods and are now in distinct life stages, we found that these three external pressures are consistent and persistent.



Do it all. No matter how one looks at it, women today manage many facets of life. Most women -- fully 70% -- work outside the home. They balance this with work inside the home: our survey found that about 75% of women feel both expected and motivated to make sure the household runs smoothly. These women are also juggling family responsibilities and dedicating time to finding a partner or building a relationship with a mate.


Look good. Despite all the statistics that demonstrate that women are becoming more educated, capable, and accomplished, women of all ages deal with strong cultural expectations that they must always look good. We found that over 60% of women feel they are expected to be attractive and feminine.

Be nice. For generations, women have been socialized to be polite and nice, and women’s biology encourages this behavior. We learned that being nice is deeply engrained in women of all ages: over 80% of women believe they are both expected and motivated to be nice -- implying that, here, nature may have stronger influence on behavior than nurture.

Yet, these deeply engrained expectations are not completely in line with what women seem to want today. They appear more focused on their own empowerment, their own choices, their own motivations. In our survey, 86% of female respondents thought that women should both pursue their own personal motivations and be able to make their own choices and not be judged by them. The question then becomes whether the three persistent cultural expectations are aligned with women’s true motivations. And accordingly, from the marketing perspective, could there be a more effective approach to connecting with women that is in line with a more authentic part of themselves?

Correspondingly, it strongly appears that the media, the entertainment industry, and advertisers have not kept up with women’s progress. Most often, these influential institutions continue to emphasize the persistent expectations of doing it all, looking good, and being nice. The women from our survey would agree—about 60% believed that the media, entertainment, and marketing advertisements don’t accurately represent women of today.

So marketers have a choice: they can continue to play into these expectations that seemingly will not go away, partly due to marketers’ own efforts, or they can make the leap to more realistic communication with women that taps into their true motivations, an approach that could have more power and success in today’s more authentic consumer world.

American women are at a defining, empowering moment in history. They are personally motivated, and they want to make their own choices and not be judged by them. We also know that brands contribute to cultural development and therefore, we can infer that brands themselves influence what women believe they are expected to do. That means brands have the opportunity to influence women to have more positive expectations for themselves, expectations that are more consistent with women’s true motivations.

We advocate for marketers to evolve as women themselves are evolving and to develop a deeper, empathic understanding of women’s motivations instead of continuing to perpetuate age-old expectations. Speaking directly to these motivations, given women’s indicated preference to follow them, could prove most powerful and effective. Marketers have an opportunity to evolve their approach by having more authentic dialogue with women—dialogue based on a foundation of deep, empathic understanding rather than based on simply an informed vantage point that is often out of sync with women’s true motivations.

Kathy Oneto is vice president of brand strategy at Anthem.


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