Product Design and Gender Bias


We all know that brands matter in how customers view a product, but apparently so can the gender of a product’s creator. Recent research from a group of Stanford scholars—Shelley Correll, Sarah Soule, and Elise Tak—showed that gender stereotypes had a significant impact on product evaluation. That is, traditionally male-oriented products such as beer, tools and automobiles can be viewed quite negatively if they are perceived to have a female progenitor.

“Our research suggests that customers don’t value and are less inclined to buy traditionally male products if they think they’ve been manufactured by women,” says Soule. “There’s an assumption that your woman-made craft beer, screwdriver, or roof rack just won’t be as good.”

To understand how gender can affect the perception of product designs, the research team first asked 150 people to rate how masculine or feminine particular products are—from construction tools to baking mixes.

 “We asked them to look at around 360 products on the retail platform, from fairly intuitive products like golf clubs and baby clothes, to less obvious things like lamps or air conditioning units or even bottles of water,” says Correll. “It’s funny how there tends to be consensus about the gender-typing of some products. Bacon, for instance, is almost universally seen as male, while coffee is rated more gender neutral.”

After rating the items, the research team honed in on two items, craft beer and cupcakes, that were perceived as equally distant from one another in terms of their masculinity and femininity, respectively. The team then queried 200 respondents on their perceptions of a craft beer label with only the name of the brewer shifting from male to female, to identify how gender affects perceptions. The team did the same with the cupcake label.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when respondents believed the beer brewer to be female they were willing to pay less and had lower expectations for the taste and quality of the product. Interestingly, and perhaps an indicator of implicit gender bias, the same effect did not hold true for the male cupcake maker. If told that the beer had won awards, however, the effect would disappear. Respondents who were also more knowledgeable about beer showed less of a bias as well. Demonstrating that expertise in a domain may be an attenuating factor. 

Greg VanderPol