Book Review: “Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots” Gender Differences explained, but few Diversity clues

When I first heard about the title of Gloria Moss’s latest book, „Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots“, I was enthused in hoping for additional support in navigating the minefield of ‘real’, i.e. natural, gender differences and ‘constructed’, i.e. nurtured, gender stereotypes. While the book offers a phenomenal compilation of studies to explain differences in how men and women see the world, design products or perceive advertising messages, we find but a few hints about reasons and fixes for the unfortunate gender dynamics that are perpetuated in society and even more in the business world.

Gloria Moss is one of the few professors who has been focusing on Gender Marketing research for many years – an area that started to be acknowledged in the late 1990s and that continues to be underestimated from a business case perspective. For ample market research shows that companies consistently fail to tap into the potential of female consumers. One of the recurring findings of surveys among women is that they are fed up with the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach, which some consumer brands followed. And female customers expect to be integrated in the general marketing approach and not fobbed off with some side product while the main product continues to focus on a male mainstream audience (as is the case with pink Lego vs. normal Lego, or pink Kinder surprise egg vs. normal surprise egg).

“Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots” offers two parts. The first one contains an amazing collection of empirical studies that show how men and women design things differently (even at pre-school age), and which criteria men and women use when they are shopping. Moss manages to present and contextualize a wealth of insights in a way that is sharp and entertaining at the same time. As she seems to be loving and living her profession, she is able to use numerous anecdotes from her everyday life to illustrate facts or introduce studies. I was intrigued by the evidence presented about men and women consistently producing products or designs that comply with the male and female categories Diversity practitioners are all too familiar with: Male equals technical, functional, square, straight, less colour etc. Female equals aesthetics, round shapes, more colour (here we start to read a lot about mauve, pink, turquoise). She also shows the frightening tendency that each gender has a preference to include their own kind in drawings and that each gender has a natural tendency to prefer products or designs from their own kind (blind tests).

The explanation for many of the observed differences, which is announced in the book’s title, is offered in chapter 4. Moss presents different schools in the very, very difficult field of gender studies and does acknowledge the only common ground that exists in this high-tension arena: There must be some mixture of nature and nurture elements, i.e. biological/evolutionary plus social/constructed aspects. Unfortunately, the key chapter 4 focuses almost entirely on sex differences with anything from brain construction to colour perception. Inevitably, this road takes us to the hunter and gatherer role division that prevailed for tens of thousands of years. The last ice age, 10,000 years ago, has only been the first dramatic incident that stopped, changed and even reversed prehistoric gender roles. Many more followed, and Moss does not consider the implications of the three fundamental industrial revolutions we have seen in a space of just 250ish years and how related societal, technological and other dynamics have influenced preferences and priorities of the two genders and their relationships.

On implications, the second part of the book, we learn more about women’s preferences for rounded objects, how important the colour of a car is for female drivers, and that women pick out the prettiest screws… The book does a great job in uncovering discrepancies in many industries and how especially companies with low percentages of women in their management ranks fail miserably in considering their female clients – even if they might account for the majority (as it is the case in retail). Moss keeps on reminding readers (and the decision makers she portrays) about the paramount need to know your customers (or audience or target group), which may well include the need to go and talk and – above all – listen to them. On this note, we get some funny, though sad, examples from the advertising industry (which I have been following as an advertising columnist for ten years myself) and from municipal contexts. While the book covers a lot of the Product and Promotion side of marketing, the other Ps (Price, Place, People) are analysed to a lesser degree. Research suggests that particularly sales strategies – and more specifically the staff involved – plays a key role in the success of Gender Marketing strategies (even more so in industries such as financial services that were found to be dealing worst with their female customers).

Gloria Moss’s latest book does a great job in showing and explaining sex differences through an amazing collection of findings. Throughout the chapters, the reader gets the impression that the world is still divided in the hunters and gatherers spheres and that a company offering a product might have to choose if they want to offer boxy functional things or rounded, colourful aesthetic objects. As the book does not explore the socially constructed side of gender differences, nor the overlays with age/generations and cultures/nationalities or even sexual orientation (this is where male-female patterns can quickly go out of the window), it does not offer clues to gender inclusive approaches that get beyond the stereotypical division of male and female plots. To the best of my experience with large multinational employers, this is where they want to go both in HR and Marketing terms, and this is also where most Western societies are heading for: Partnership roles for men and women in education, family and at work.