It’s time to call out a gender stereotype, widespread across marketing and media, that’s preventing men — yes, men — from reaching their full potential. I say this based on my own experience marketing other women, as well as my own recent experience being marketed as a woman.
When I started my career in the sports industry, about fifteen years ago, the major sports apparel brands sold about 80% of their products to men and 20% to women. But then, thanks to factors such as the impact of Title IX and the birth of fitness apparel as a fashion statement, suddenly the race to dominate with market share against women was ON like Donkey Kong! I feel deeply honored that my career across a few companies involved the marketing of such card-carrying badasses as Serena Williams, Abby Wambach, Candace Parker and Allyson Felix. But when I reflect now upon all of the conversations I had around those great athletes, I realize that our assumption as an industry was that we were elevating female athletes in order to better connect with female consumers. And this is where I was shortsighted.
I can remember many discussions with young female athletes who told us, yes, they loved looking up to these great female superstars, but they also loved looking up to the dudes. There were plenty of quotes from focus groups of young women saying “I’m a baller – so I want to look up to the best – no matter whether they are a guy or a girl.” Or, “Do not treat me like I am sitting at the kids table at Thanksgiving. I’m an athlete and I want to be the best.” To this day a young female athlete is equally likely to look up to LeBron as she is to Tamika Catchings. And I’m proud of the work that the industry has done to respect that message and thereby help a generation of young women come into their own as athletes of all kinds.
But why did we never once talk about the reverse? In this moment, I would like to step up and recognize my own failure. Where were the focus groups asking young male athletes what they learned from some of these iconic female athletes? Where were the ad campaigns that specifically targeted women role models for young men? Why did it not occur to us to think about the unique lessons that a champion female athlete can bring to a male audience?
Marketing of all kinds, through media of all kinds, tends to assume that men can’t be inspired by, learn from, and benefit from role models who are women. And now for the first time in my career, I am personally discovering how bloody hard that makes it for female athletes, thought leaders, and role models to break through to the same level as their male counterparts.
Recently I wrote a book, EXTREME YOU: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat, specifically designed to inspire and guide readers of all kinds to achieve more of their potential. I drew on my own experiences in some of the most “male” industries on the planet — aviation and sports — and I went to great lengths to include equally the inspiring stories of both men and women as models. Yet now as I am marketing my book, every aspect of the industry wants to put me in the “women’s bucket.” I’m constantly told that the men’s magazines won’t want to cover my book because their readers only want to hear from men. That the men’s groups think they can’t invite me to speak because I am not a man. It’s as if they believe that because a woman wrote a book, it can only have value for women.
That’s just crazy. And it’s everywhere. Abby Wambach has technical skills as a soccer player that my son can learn from, but he’s highly unlikely to see her profiled in a men’s magazine. I am the only person — not just the only woman, but the only human being — who has led the turnaround of a five billion dollar sports drink business, but men are less likely to hear about and benefit from my experience because so much of my speaking happens at women’s conferences. (Unless of course they are the awesome kind of Extreme men who happen to be the two brave dudes that show up to a networking event for women because they are intrigued to hear about my sports experiences. Yep, that happened!)
Why are we limiting males by giving them access to only half the population of role models? We have to change this game. The bold action we can all take is to give men that chance to have women as role models by putting women’s experiences in front of them. Purposefully put women’s sports and sports heroes in front of men — not just as the supporting cast in a multi-athlete TV campaign, but as the leader of the show.
More importantly, let’s include female leaders and heroes in “men’s” media and stop treating men as though they are incapable of enjoying, appreciating and benefiting from the ways women find to get in the game and succeed.
If we could change this game in the media and marketing industry, we’d all benefit from the stories, the techniques and the inspiration from a wider group of role models. And in the process, we’d help close the gender gap.
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn in recognition of International Women’s Day 2017.