The American woman, if you go by commercials, is a bizarre creature. To write, she wants pink pens; to choose a soft drink, she wants to be assured she’ll be skinny afterward; when selecting makeup, she wants to create an entire new personality each time she applies lipstick; she considers cleaning floors a feminist, patriotic act akin to the work done by women who built American munitions during World War II — think of nearly every campaign Peggy Olson got stuck on. And, apparently, when a woman chooses to snack, she wants it Cheeto dust-free, library-quiet and compact enough to be tucked in a night-out-size clutch.
That’s the concept PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi briefly floated in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast: “low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.” It prompted The Washington Post’s Maura Judkis to mock, “Maybe you could invent some chip-scented air that I could just breathe?” and Pepsi to swiftly disavow any plans.
The idea is in line with the Chrome extension designed to eliminate allegedly feminized speech patterns. (A great idea — until you realize that it’s another way of policing women’s speech and that women developed those patterns because they reliably face social punishment when they don’t.) Or the app that judges how often men interrupt women. (A great idea until you look at studies showing women interrupt women, too.)
These creations, designed to police women’s behavior or help them police themselves, came from woman-run companies. Call it unconscious bias, call it internalized misogyny, call it whatever you want, but women — half of people — have been treated as outliers for so long that we’ve never properly studied their needs and lost sight of what a coherent market for women’s products should look like. That’s how we get Lady Doritos when we just need clothes with pockets.
The common theme is an assumption that fixing one small manifestation of sexism will somehow improve the structural factors working against women. Forget paid leave, equal pay, reproductive rights. Instead of thinking big, women are led to obsess about details. Women aren’t allowed to finish sentences, so let’s give them a way to see in real time how often they never get to express a full idea. Women must apologize to avoid appearing domineering, so let’s give them a way to remove apologetic phrasing instead of, say, asking others to change their sexist perceptions of women’s speech. (Why not create an extension that changes the condescending “actually” to “I hear what you’re saying” when responding to women?) Instead of encouraging women to confidently inhabit the space they’re in, make themselves heard — and, good grief, enjoy a few handfuls of nacho cheese-flavored deliciousness — give them silent food to help them pretend to be invisible and ashamed to snack for pleasure.
Why do companies consistently get women so wrong when it comes to their products and services, even if women are creating them? There are at least three dovetailing reasons: First, just having a woman at the top isn’t enough to adequately reach women as a market — we don’t expect male CEOs to speak for all men, for instance. Second, women’s behavior is overly scrutinized and often misinterpreted because of the unconscious bias that everyone, including other women, carries. Lastly, companies haven’t moved away from the idea that it’s smart to pander to women by changing the look and feel of a product, rather than improving its essential function. After all, the Dorito isn’t broken:
It should be common sense that women are not a monolith. Nooyi, a millionaire CEO, probably doesn’t have much in common with the average Doritos consumer, male or female. She probably gets her theories from researchers, who start with their own presumptions.
One way to fix this is to hire more women at every level in corporate America and put them in charge of products. In the business world, there is a difference in prestige between revenue-producing businesses, which are the lifeline of most companies, and “support” functions like human resources and finance, which are called “cost centers” because they are necessary but do not provide any profit. Once you recognize this divide, you see what needs to be fixed at most big companies: There are not enough women in charge of the prestigious work — product decisions and revenue generation.
PepsiCo has 10 men and only two women, besides Nooyi, on its board of directors and says it actively promotes female leadership. Most of those women are in wider corporate functions like finance, HR or information technology. Nearly all its revenue-producing businesses are helmed by men. That includes the head of its research and development division and the head of its snack group, where the now-disavowed Lady Doritos were probably conceived and presumably would have lived.
If we want companies to make products women really want, women should be well-represented in creative and product decision-making — not only financial or management choices. We already know from various studies that gender diversity is profitable. Having a fair mix of men and women earns companies 15 percent more money than their rivals because the more diverse a company, the more opposing views it tends to have. The rarest thing in most companies is the person who will say “no.” Rest assured that if a critical mass of women had had an opportunity to offer their thoughts on antiseptic, concealable, sotto voce Doritos, they would have voted no.
And then there’s plain-old sexism. Having more women in decision-making roles is only a start. Women, too, struggle to understand other women, as a fascinating short BBC documentary, “Why Are Even Women Biased Against Women?” recently explored.
Both men and women tend to underestimate the intelligence of women and their ability to make informed choices for themselves. For instance: If a woman isn’t tipping her head back and pouring the last crumbs from a Doritos bag down her throat, as Nooyi notes, it’s not because she’s dainty. It’s probably because she doesn’t enjoy chips that way. The “male” way to eat them isn’t the only way or the best one. (Maybe women simply prefer not to risk choking on their food.) Likewise, if a woman phrases her ideas with a hedge as to what others may think, maybe she’s not brainwashed but simply reading the room. The struggle to humanize women — to truly see women as having free will and agency — has only just started. Which is where hiring comes in: It becomes easier to humanize women when more women are around.
Entirely too much thinking in corporate America’s product decisions centers on helping women perform better within preexisting stereotypes: to stay in a state of perpetual shifting identity, always in the process of some kind of makeover to become the ideal of thin, feminine, unobtrusive. The message to women is that who they are, right now, cannot possibly be adequate. Indeed, a woman who feels adequate might buy fewer things to make her feel better, so confidence in women might be an existential threat to consumerism.
Which brings up one last problem: The most tedious manifestation of this sexism is the corporate habit of marking everything meant for women pink or playing up its supposed femininity. Women don’t need pink razors; they need good ones, like men have, which is perhaps why, according to a Gillette survey, 30 percent of women borrow or buy men’s shaving products. Women also don’t need pink pens, as Bic found out from searing Amazon reviews of Bic “For Her.”
Women want things that work and don’t have to be replaced; tasty snacks; pants and dresses with pockets; apps that track their health or entertain them, not apps that police their speech; products that carry an empowering message. The long-held corporate habit of telegraphing this is for ladies has been an empty gesture, frequently signaling lower quality. It’s lazy, and boring, and women aren’t falling for it.
Let women’s razors have five blades. Let dresses have pockets. Let women eat noisy Doritos.