Don't Ask Women What Women Want

There are a lot of stereotypes about women. Some of these stereotypes (e.g., women like pink) are relatively innocuous. Other stereotypes -- women are bad at math and science, women are too emotional to be leaders, women can't be aggressive and strong -- can be a lot more damaging. And they're damaging partly because these stereotypes are often just as prevalent among women as among men. For instance, there's evidence that both men and women feel that women and math don't belong together. Studies have also shown that both men and women tend to have an (implicit) association between the concepts of males and career, as well as between females and family. And a Gallup poll found that both men and women would prefer a male boss. Thus, there seems to be a tendency for women to hold beliefs and attitudes about their own gender that are similar to the beliefs and attitudes that men have about women. In other words, women seem to be stereotyping other women like men.

I was curious about how prevalent this phenomenon was, and decided to conduct a survey at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research. The idea was to identify what women actually prefer, and what men and women think that women prefer. In order to study this, we asked the survey respondents to answer some questions about their own preferences. For instance, we asked respondents what their primary consideration is when they're clothes shopping, what type of alcoholic beverages they prefer, and the types of movies they like to watch. This gave us data on the actual preferences that women have. We also asked respondents to tell us what they think would be true for women. In other words, what do women look for when they go clothes shopping? What do women like to drink? What do women most prefer to watch? This gave us data on the preferences that men and women think that women have.

Preferences when clothes shopping

The chart below shows the data for the question about clothes shopping. Notice that when women were asked what they personally consider to be the most important factor (the orange bars), the top choices were how the clothes make them feel, the comfort of the item, and its price. However, when participants were asked to indicate what they thought women valued, comfort and price were not high on the list. In fact, both men (black bars) and women (blue bars) believed that women mainly cared about how the clothes make one feel and whether one's peers are wearing the item.

Preferences for alcoholic beverages

There was a similar pattern for preferences regarding alcoholic beverages. The chart below shows data from the question asking respondents what types of alcoholic beverages women most prefer, and the type of beverage they personally most prefer. Notice that women reported they liked to drink beer and hard liquor more than men and women predicted they would. In contrast, women said they liked wine less than predicted.

Preferences for movies

There's a strong stereotype that women love romantic films. However, when women were asked about the type of film they most prefer, their responses were fairly split across all the film genres, with comedy films selected most often. In fact, women selected romance and romantic comedies the least often. Nevertheless, both men and women overwhelmingly predicted that women preferred romantic films.

All three charts lead to the same conclusion: women and men have similar stereotypes about what women want, and women are often just as inaccurate as men when it comes to predicting what women want. This is evident from two specific comparisons that one can make in every one of the charts. First, comparing the predictions made by men and women (i.e., comparing the blue bars to the black bars) reveals that both men and women seem to be relying on common stereotypes when predicting what women prefer. Second, there's a fairly large difference when we compare the orange bars (women reporting what they actually want) to the blue bars (women predicting what women want), or the orange bars to the black bars (men predicting what women want). Thus, what women actually want is very often NOT what men or women think they want.

It seems reasonable that men would rely on stereotypes when answering these questions. After all, they may not have a lot of knowledge and/or experience about what women prefer. Consequently, they might need to rely on stereotypes when making predictions. However, it seems odd that women would also rely on the same stereotypes. After all, they shop for clothes themselves, and have probably gone shopping with other women. They've ordered drinks and/or watched other women order drinks. They've been in situations where they were picking what movie to watch, and witnessed what movies other women opted to watch. So why wouldn't they consult their own past experiences instead of relying on stereotypes?

One might argue that it doesn't matter much. So what if women stereotype other women? It matters for two reasons. First, studies have shown that when we feel we are similar to someone, we tend to project--we rely on our own attitudes, beliefs, and behavior to predict the other person's attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. However, note that this happens mainly when we think they other person is similar to us. When we are asked to make judgments or predictions about someone who we think is different from us, we rely on stereotypes. So if women are relying on stereotypes when making judgments about what other women prefer (instead of projecting), it might suggest that women tend to see themselves as not being very similar to other women.

The second reason it matters is because when women rely on the same stereotypes about women that men do, they might end up holding similar attitudes. This may explain why women, like men, think that women are bad at math and don't want to work for a female boss. It might also mean that you choose wine or a romantic film for a date, when in fact she would have preferred beer and the latest superhero flick.

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The Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research receives funding from KPMG. However, research activities are determined by the interests of the Institute's researchers and trending topics.