Finally, a man who knows what women want

Published: Oct 27, 2009


… and it's not Mel Gibson …

In last week's New Yorker, the Talk of the Town section featured a column about Michael Silverstein, a senior partner at BCG in Chicago. The piece called to me both because it fell onto my consulting radar, but also because of its subject matter.

Silverstein, a self-proclaimed expert on what women want (after "thirty years of research into the feminine soul,"), claims that Sweden is the ideal place for women to live—an idyllic land of tall mountains, tall blonds and "virtually no gender discrimination. Men and women live as equals," according to Silverstein. And he should know—he's been conducting questionnaires of 12,000 women across 40 countries, asking them about everything from their spending habits to work style to satisfaction with their sex life. Silverstein, along with co-author Kate Sayre, have turned those findings into a book: Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World's Largest, Fastest-Growing Market. Their target readership is businesses that aim products at a female audience, and the authors claim that women are the key to fixing the economy, and that companies need to study the female psyche and spending habits to tap into that market and boost retail spending.

Silverstein's obviously done his research; he states, "I have literally invented billions of dollars of product that is based on listening to women—I can tell you how to turn their dissatisfaction into product response, and how to bring it to marketplace." It's hard to argue with billions of dollars of product, after all. And it's clear that Silverstein really is gunning for gender equality—he wishes that all women could live as his "Swedish angels" do, in total gender harmony.

That sounds lovely, really it does. I just can't help but feel (and this may be my women's liberal arts college education coming through here) that for all of Silverstein's forward-thinking ideas on gender equality, what comes through at the end of the New Yorker bit are some fairly paternalistic ideas that take him right back into very traditional ways of thinking about gender roles. He describes one of the ideal scenes he encountered in Sweden, in which a family is in its summer house in the country, and the husband goes out and hunts for dinner. Silverstein concludes, "They are happy. American women don't have anyone hunting for them—that's the real problem." Interesting. I'm not going to argue that chivalry is dead (nor that it should be), but it does strike me as an odd conclusion, and leaves me with the feeling that Silverstein's findings will be used by a predominantly male audience who will capitalize on his ideas to revive their business and rev up the economy. And they should—that's the consulting world, isn't it? Study a subject, draw conclusions, apply those to businesses in an effort to improve the market. But let's call it what it is—business—and not confuse the importance of the "female economy" with a rally call for gender equality. Not that it has to be one or the other, but the argument for equality gets diluted when matched up with pure marketing strategy.