Challenging Stereotypes to Unlock Opportunity


By Ivan Bojanic, Sr. Strategy & Implementation Manager, Gongos, Inc.

As human beings, our brains are hardwired for a lot of things, including shortcuts that allow us to streamline our thinking and be more efficient. When you walk into a room and see an object that has four legs and a horizontal seat, you don’t waste time processing what’s in front of you; instead, your brain sees a chair – and you immediately know you can safely sit on it.

This kind of cognitive shortcut is termed a stereotype. As helpful as they can be, though, stereotypes can also limit our ideas of what people can do, or what they would find appealing, based on superficialities like gender or age.

That’s not to say that these aren’t factors, of course. As an example of that, Baby Boomers are most certainly more interested in wealth management than Gen Z given where they are in life. But we need to be aware of our instinct to stereotype when we’re trying to understand people’s attitudes, perceptions, and behavior. And, we should ask ourselves the question: “How often are we looking at products and services and not considering a broader audience because stereotypes are holding us back?”

How Stereotyping Plays Out

Let’s take a look at gender stereotypes. We’ve seen rapid and sweeping changes in attitudes that trend towards greater equality—but when it comes to stereotypes, we’re, well…kind of stuck. In fact, a 2016 study “found more gender stereotyping now about female roles and behaviors than there was 30 years ago.

Take the example of leadership. Most Americans say that both men and women have the essential traits needed to be a good leader—a clear sign of evolving attitudes. On the other hand, two-thirds of Americans think “powerful” is a positive way to describe men, while 92% find it negative for women.

That’s the stereotype in action: people are open to the idea of equality in leadership but our hardwiring gets in the way of letting us actually activating on it

What do stereotypes tell us we “should” be?

  • Traits valued more in men than women: leadership and ambition
  • Traits valued more in women than men: kindness and responsibility

The Formula: Challenge Stereotypes to Unlock Opportunity

In the business world, we can see how this gap between attitudes and stereotypes plays out every day. Despite the fact that both women and men are decision makers in many categories like grocery shopping, finance, and auto purchasing, there’s a huge gap in how they’re targeted: while 98% of ads for baby and laundry products target women, only 54% of appliance/technology ads and 42% of vehicle ads do. A lot of appliance, technology and auto manufacturers, it seems, don’t think women are really interested in what they offer.

Smart brands have understood that passively accepting stereotypes comes at a cost, and are finding success in challenging them:

  • Beverage giant Diageo realized that women were underrepresented in its advertising but when better represented, their ads were highly effective and increased ROI 48%.
  • Only one in three brands are gender-balanced  but their value is more than 30% greater than brands with a male or female skew.

It’s not that difficult to successfully challenge stereotypes: simply providing examples of a different approach can reframe people’s notions of what’s possible. We’re seeing countless examples of that today, including:

Destigmatizing “single.” By 2017, 69% of American adults younger than 35 had never been married. For women, this increasingly means feeling empowered: 54% say that being single makes them feel independent. The dating app Tinder acted on this with its “Single Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign, which showed “the model woman [as] unapologetically single, confident and taking on new experiences head-on, embodying what single is today.”

Redefining “motherhood.” On magazine covers, fashion runways, social media feeds, and comedy stages, we’re seeing depictions of women that expand the notion of what motherhood means, and what mothers can do. The startup Chairman Mom is bringing this to the executive suite, providing a platform that connects working mothers and resources that support success in their careers and at home.

Reconsidering “beauty.” Brands have long been at the forefront of equating beauty with looking good, and a source of validation. That’s being challenged in countless ways by everyday people, artists, and brands that want to broaden the conversation about what is “beautiful.” In fashion, “ugly is the new pretty,” and Gen Z is focusing more on healthy skincare than masking a natural look with cosmetics.

Short-Circuiting Our Hardwiring

Our hardwired ability to stereotype—to make mental connections easily and quickly, in nuanced and complex ways—is what makes us extremely efficient at processing information. But that same cognitive tool can also hold back businesses’ ability to understand how people think as consumers and lead to missed opportunities.

It’s tempting and easy to assume which products will “naturally” appeal to an entire group; or what product traits “most” people will find attractive. But we should be aware of that temptation and ask ourselves if it’s really true.

In doing so, we can learn from brands that are avoiding this path, and that are reaching new audiences, and creating new opportunities, by showing us new possibilities. By challenging some of our most basic stereotypes (and our default hardwiring), they’re redefining what we assume can be possible and finding success at the same time.

As published in Thrive Global.