has business and branding been feminized?


Oh, dear, God. According to a columnist at the Financial Times, an economy in which value comes from innovation, culture, and creativity must necessarily reflect a deeper trend: the feminization of business.

The whole vocabulary of business has changed. Bosses who were once gruff, tough, macho, dominant and bold are now expected to be open, approachable, caring, persuasive and kind. Command-and-control systems of management, with their rigid hierarchies and strict rules, have given way to flexibility, collaboration and teamwork. We hear a lot less about risk, conflict and conquest and a lot more about ethics, values and responsibility.

In short, business has become feminised. I mean this not in the sense that women have seized the reins of power – they are still lamentably under-represented in the upper tiers of management – but in the sense that stereotypically female values are in the ascendant and stereotypically male ones are in decline. These days bad companies are from Mars, good companies are from Venus.

But, wait, it gets worse.

[B]rands have replaced factories as companies’ most important assets. A high-quality product is just the price of entry to a market. Beyond that, what companies are really selling is the thing they can use to differentiate their products from those of their competitors: the set of emotions, ideas and beliefs that their brands convey.

With this in mind, it is easy to see why business is becoming feminised. Companies no longer sell products to the public simply on the basis of rational attributes such as functionality and utility. Emotion is now just as important – perhaps even more so. The most successful brands and companies are those that establish a relationship with consumers based on communicating with them, understanding their needs and empathising with them.

It is hard to imagine that anyone in the educated world imagines that the world divides so neatly, that it is women who are diplomatic, collaborative, creative, and really only women who are capable of the building and managing of brands.

I have a theory about people who think about gender in these mutually exclusive terms (that some human qualities are really feminine qualities). It’s not a very sophisticated theory, but then, hey, thanks to the FT it is, so far, not a very sophisticated debate.

My theory is that this theory is most attractive to those who went to all-boys, boarding schools. From a boarding school, the world of gender probably looks very mutually exclusive indeed.

It is fashionable to chortle over this kind of thing, because guys are just great big Labrador puppies without a trace of intellectual finesse or creativity. But hang on there, guv. The moment we indulge ourselves in this kind of nonsense we declare ourselves, the men among us, at any rate, as unfit for marketing office.

Here’s the simple anthropological truth of the matter. None of the higher intellectual or creative abilities is gender specific. I don’t care what Larry says. Until we have had several generations of bias free socialization, we are merely whistling Dixie.

And speaking of Dixie, let us remember that it was in not so long ago not unusual to hear people insist that there existed essential differences between ethnic groups, nationalities, classes, regions, and religions. (And do I have to remind anyone that the FT essay bears more than a little resemblance to 20th century treatments of the Jewish influence on German culture?) Gender is merely the last hold out of that demonic inclination to suppose that some aspects of humanness take up residence only or mostly in this or that corner of the demographic patch work.

And if historical perspective doesn’t settle this issue, perhaps you, the male reader, will at least take the self interested point of view. If the essayist for the FT is correct, it is time for a lot of the people who care about branding to give over to those with the right gender credentials.


Anonymous. 2005. Macho business muscle gives itself a feminine
Makeover. Financial Times. May 17, 2005. Registration and subscription required.


Tom Guarriello here, for pointing out the FT essay. I think Tom takes more kindly to the essay. I will let you know if he enters the lists in its defense.

Last note:

This is the 350th entry here at This Blogs Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. Please present your ticket stubs at the concession stand for a small Coke and a cheery wave from the projectionist.

8 thoughts on “has business and branding been feminized?

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Oh Grant, Grant, Grant. Your analysis is so logical. So well parsed. So far removed from the emotionally charged world of executive management!

    Of course the neat sorting of human characteristics by gender is nonsensical. But that doesn’t stop the proverbial “man[ager] in the street” from making those projections. I find it incredible how many execs still want to lead from a Richard The Lionhearted perspective in an era that demands so much more connectivity between involved agents.

    These are not only boarding school grads, but HBS types, as well. (Larry’s not the only male in Cambridge who sees gender-based dividing lines; ask any woman who’s run that high wire gauntlet.)

    Point is, the facts may be on the side of those of us who chuckle at this kind of chromosomally-fixated thinking. But that does not change the way men and women behave toward one another in today’s executive suites.

  2. charu

    er, I am not a male reader of your blog – can I still say something? 🙂 there has always been this disdain for what are perceived as softer / feminine funcitons – say, branding – as opposed to sales – even qualitative research as opposed to “numbers” research – that is what it amounts to, I guess – tangible, number-oriented work is masculine? “None of the higher intellectual or creative abilities is gender specific” – not even number crunching!

  3. Tom

    Tom, it sounds like you’re saying that what is not true in fact (intellectual and creative ability distributed by gender) becomes true in practice. As long as men think it’s so, they make it so. But surely, that is changing. A couple of generations ago, there were no women at the Harvard Business School. They will hit 50/50 sometime soon. And hey presto, it turns out that woman at HBS can crunch numbers with the best of them. It remains to see whether HBS can endow male students with the characteristically female arts of creativity and intuition. But in point of fact this is one, perhaps the, great differentiator amongst the males. They are all very smart. Advantage goes to those who have a non linear feeling for creativity and an ability to read and finesse the corporate culture through which innovation must move. But there I go again, accepting that these are gendered qualities. They are merely apportioned culturally and historically and that is as I say changing. Thanks, Grant

    Charu, exactly right, numbers, “can you do them and how well you do them?,” is the great differentiator in certain male circles And anything else, and esp. qualitative stuff, is seen to be easy. One of the chief concerns here is that we can tell who does numbers well and who does not. We cant tell who does qualitative stuff well or badly. So the qualitative side is all shades of gray. But this is a self created problem. As long as there is an embargo against taking the qualitative stuff seriously, this remains true. Thanks, Grant

  4. Tom Guarriello

    Yes, Grant, I’m saying that “facts” have little to do with the maintenance of gender-based opinions, or prejudices of all kinds, for that matter. The issue for me also becomes one of power. Male corporate leadership has been challenged over the past 20 years and no one, gender aside, likes to lose power. Marginalizing the threat (“how can a girl run a factory?”) is a pretty simple (albeit ineffective) method for managing it; kind of like denial as a defense mechanism. Anyway, I certainly agree that the cultural/historical gender-based attributions are changing, but not without a (covert or overt) fight by the guys.

  5. Grant

    Tom, I guess my sense is that those who hold power will protect their claim on it against everyone, regardless of gender, creed, race…etc. I think gender is ceasing to be grounds for a convincing argument. One of the reasons this is so is that we have now had several high profile women working as CEOs and they have put to rest the feminist notion that women would run things differently, that they would transform the corporation with their special point of view and gendered endowments. Phew! It’s not about gender, its about ability. Thanks, Grant

  6. Anonymous

    Late to the party here…but there are four distinct issues here. First, are there two distinct value-complexes about how to handle the world (i.e., what is important, what is legitimate, etc.)? Second, are these differences highly correlated with sex? Third, if they are, how much are such correlations explainable by socialization? Fourth, is one of these value-complexes more suitable for business than the other, and if so, which one? For what it’s worth, my answers are yes, yes, somewhere from 1/3 to 2/3, and the “masculine” one is more appropriate.

    On the first point, one has to be clear not to fixate on salient examples to avoid over-specializing the description. But from the nerds at Caltech to the jocks in locker rooms, from officers in the military to chefs at world-class restaurants, one can find an orientation to externally defined achievement, competition (with cooperation a matter of instrumental teamwork against man or nature), display of prowess, definitions of ethics in terms of duties or objective outcomes, etc. This orientation contrasts with the one usually found in families, churches, elementary schools, friendships, volunteer organizations, etc., which prioritizes interpersonal achievement (being liked or wanted emotionally), cooperation for solidarity rather than task accomplishment, displays of personal commitment and belonging, definnitions of ethics as fulfilling others’ needs, etc.

    I would say that the achievement value-complex is primary for more men than women, and the connectedness value-complex primary for more men tnan women. Of course, everybody partakes of both of these complexes to some degree, depending on context and what the social situation (others’ complexes) dictate, but one’s primary identity probably resides in one or the other (“I am a worthwhile person because…”). I can’t back this statistical claim up with systematic data–it’s based on casual observation by me and lots of other people. I’d be surprised if many people doubted it though. This generalization is the reason why the achievement value-complex is often referred to imprecisely as “masculine” and the connectedness one is seen as “feminine.”

    I’ll leave the third and fourth points for a future overly long comment.

  7. steve

    Previous comment was me. I thought I had the “remember info” box checked.

  8. Grant

    Steve, beautifully parsed, but wrong! Skills don’t break out by gender in the long term, and even if there is, for the moment, a characteristic masculine point of view, it is not better at/for business than the other…especially not if we put creativity on the feminine side. Thoughts only. Thanks, Grant

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