Toys for boys and girls
Consumer electronics gadgets such as digital cameras, MP3 music players and mobile
phones are often dismissed as "boys' toys" - and this is simply wrong. They are girls' toys, too. In
fact, in the US, women are buying more of them than men. In most categories except video
games, women have either caught up or are already on top.
However, Paul Hide from Sony says that, in the UK last year, 53% of the purchasers of
electrical and electronics products were men and 47% were women, and with products such as
DVD players, TV sets and laptop computers, the number of female purchasers was about the
same as the male. The market is changing, and the changes could go even further.
If you look at the next generation of American teenagers aged 13 to 18, girls are already
more frequent users of some consumer electronics products than boys. Girls are more likely than
boys to use a mobile phone (88% to 83%), a digital camera (54% to 50%), a DVD recorder (21%
to 19%) or satellite radio (24% to 18%), according to CEA market research into usage over the
previous 30 days. In most other areas, girls score the same as boys - for using TVs, VCRs, DVDs
and PCs - or a little less. Only in videogames consoles (49% to 89%) and portable MP3 players
(18% to 29%) are the girls way behind. In other words, women's interests have not necessarily
changed, but digital technology has finally caught up with them, in forms that are affordable and
reasonably easy to use.
Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist and ethnographer who works for Intel in the US, points
out that women may now have a wider range of demands than men, because they often have to
combine work, running the home and child care - ferrying the kids about.
Should consumer electronics manufacturers design things specifically for women? It is a
tricky question. Maureen Craig, vice president and chief strategy officer at Red Tettemer, an
advertising agency based in Philadelphia, agrees there is "a gender-agnostic teen market", but
says: "I don't believe that will hold up when they become adults." Mobile products suit the teen
lifestyle - "if you look at what they can use and what they can afford, mobile fits" - but when
they get their first apartment, they will have different needs.
Craig reckons there is a market if consumer electronics companies can come up with
gadgets that are "tactile and feminine - look at the products you find in the kitchen", she says.
"That's not to say you just have to paint it pink: Barbie ain't the answer!" This kind of business
has driven Asian manufacturers such as Samsung to produce small, cute, clamshell phones that
look less like geek gizmos and more like jewellery - and these have also proved popular with
European and American women. The ability to change colours by using add-on fascias is also an
advantage, since it allows one phone to be matched to different outfits. In Asia, there is also a
market for cute, branded gadgets based on characters like Hello Kitty, though this does not seem
to have travelled as well.
Jo Twist, science and technology reporter for BBC News Interactive, says she finds the
cutesy approach - visible in some displays she saw at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las
Vegas earlier this month - somewhat patronising. Catering for women "is more than just sticking
a mirror on a mobile. I tend to steer away from things that are aimed specifically at women, and I
couldn't bring myself to buy a Hello Kitty phone", she says. "That's the wrong approach."
At Sony, the largest consumer electronics company, Paul Hide says: "We have some
products, like portable audio, that come in a range of colours, but they are not specifically aimed
at women. We are trying to be gender neutral. But we are moving away from 'technology buyer'
messages to 'lifestyle' advertising. The days of us selling a lot of technology because it was high
technology have long gone. On its own, being a technology leader is not enough: there has to be
more to it than that."
In other words, consumer electronics companies are not switching from catering for men
to catering for women. There will always be some products targeted at specific groups, but the
general idea is to switch from catering for geeky men to catering for everyone. That must be a