Laptop gender wars: What your netbook (or Toughbook) says about you

If you asked, a lot of tech folks would probably tell you that the gadgets they buy are gender neutral, and that computers and consumer electronics are marketed based on their tech specs, and succeed and fail in the marketplace based on their merits -- or at least that's what they'd like you to think.

This is, of course, not true -- any more than it is for any other industry. And I'm forced to admit that I didn't really give the matter much thought until about a month ago, when I read an Ask Slashdot post in which a male poster's masculinity was apparently threatened by his tiny laptop: "I get a lot of comments from women saying it is 'cute' or 'adorable.' Not the good kind of cute that will get me the attention I want, though, the kind of cute that says they think I have a different presence than I actually want to portray. So how can I make my netbook more manly, or at least have some witty line to respond to their comments?"

[ For more on netbooks see: My Dream Netbook: IT Pros Describe the Ideal Device ]

Was it possible that an inanimate hunk of metal and plastic (and a little one, at that) could cause some poor soul such anxiety? What sort of messages about gender are built (or read) into these little boxes?

Pink laptops
Photo by alisdair

The rise of the marketeer

Another fact that techies probably don't want to deal with is the notion that the gadgets and computers that occupy so much of their days are marketed to begin with. And yet this is a fundamental reality of a business where nearly everything is built from commodity parts in outsourced manufacturing processes. "With little technological differences between their products, marketers are looking beyond speeds and feeds to differentiate their brands," says Denise Lee Yohn, an independent consultant who works on branding issues. "Design, color, form factor, and texture are the new key features for tech products."

And it is into those niches that gender-based marketing can start to get a foothold -- especially as electronics companies began to grapple with the fact that women make more electronic purchasing decisions than they might have assumed. (A recent survey by Retrevo indicated that women by some measures were more knowledgeable about tech buzzwords than men.) Andrea Learned, gender trends expert and Founder of Learned On Women, explains the path that companies embarked on: "When electronics brands first decided to go after the women's market, the only thing they could think of was literally making it pink, or more colorful, or thinking of it as an 'accessory,' more than a fully functional tool for a busy woman's life." Gerry Myers, CEO and president of Advisory Link, recalls a move by electronics retailer Best Buy along these lines: "They remodeled the stores spending millions of dollars, but made real missteps by having a pink area, even with pink balloons and pink umbrellas to help women out in the rain."

Women in IT
Photo by Kai Hendry

The gender trap

You may be surprised to hear that this approach was not well-regarded by most of the consultants I spoke to. "It is tough to reach women effectively, if you start out with gender assumptions," Learned, who has written a report called "Beware the gender trap and a book called Don't Think Pink, said. "If any computer company thought color choices were going to be the big ticket and suddenly all sorts of women would come out of the woodwork for that alone, they were wrong. And their assumption may actually have irritated women who are especially savvy about marketing."

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