Five ways consumer advocates can address gender inequality

08 March 2020

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Helena Leurent, Suzi Price and Amber Marshall

As part of our blog series for International Women's Day, we have asked inspiring women leaders from the consumer advocacy world to tell us what the day means in their country, and some of the issues for female consumers. 

For our final blog in the series, Helena Leurent, Suzi Price and Amber Marshall looks at five ways consumer advocates can address gender inequality.


Why is this a consumer rights issue as well as a human rights issue?  First, consider that women influence between 64%-85% of all buying decisions globally. Women are accountable for an estimated 20 trillion USD in consumer spending around the world. Second, addressing gender equality helps grow healthy and sustainable economies and market places. “A nation’s competitiveness in the long term depends significantly on whether and how it educates and utilizes its women [and whether they have] the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities as men.” (World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report). According to McKinsey & Co, if women play an identical role in labour markets to men, as much as 28 trillion USD, or 26%, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025, as compared to the climate finance gap which stands at 585 billion USD per year by 2020, and 894 billion USD by 2030.

How can we push for the systemic change we need, beyond tokenism, and towards the real balance and belonging we can all find with gender equality?

1. Demand products are designed to be safe and fair for all

As consumers we should be able to assume that the products we buy are safe for their intended purpose when used as directed. We know this is not the case for many underserved consumer types including women.  Car design is among the most egregious cases recently of how rights to safe products are flouted for women.  In 2019 Consumer Reports, a member of Consumers International in the US, highlighted how when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured, and 71 percent more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17 percent more likely to die. This is because car crash testing systems use dummies modelled on the average male as a stand-in for all adults, while the closest representation of a female form is just the male dummy scaled down enough so it can double as a 12-year-old child. 

2. Build financial inclusion

Nearly one of every three women in the world — or 1.1 billion — is excluded from the formal financial system. Globally, women are 7 percent less likely than men to have basic transactional accounts.  This disparity rises among the poor: women living below 2 USD a day are 28 percent less likely than men to have a bank account. Women are more difficult to reach through the usual information channels that target men and financial services providers have less incentive to cater to women because the margins start smaller and women require more upfront investment to bring on as consumers. All these inequalities stem from long anchored social norms and prejudices but can be overcome with appropriate attention and meaningful innovation. Read Teresa Liporace’s blog here.

3. Get ahead of potential discrimination in AI

Good data can help close gender gaps, but if the “right” questions are not asked, or algorithms are poorly designed, gender gaps can widen.  Studies tend to have focused data sampling from men, excluded representative samples of women and can therefore result in medical advice that is not necessarily suitable for the female body.  For example, cardio-vascular diseases were typically perceived as a male illness. Online apps may suggest to a woman that her pain in the left arm and back may be due to depression. In contrast, a man using the same app is more likely to be identified as having suffered a heart attack and be directed to urgently contact medical support.

4. Ensure fair representation in advertising

Representation in advertising and media helps shape societal values.  According to some marketing experts, an average consumer in the developed world might see between 4,000 and 10,000 ads each day across every form of media, including film, TV news, gaming, music, publishing, film criticism, consumer goods mascots, and traditional advertising.  A 2019 report from the Geena Davis Institute across 2.7 million YouTube ads showed continued gender bias in advertising, including the proportion of time characters spent speaking, compounded by age bias (i.e., female characters tend to be younger than male).  In the top 100 viewed global ads, female characters were more likely to wear revealing clothing than male characters, and were shown more often in the kitchen, shopping, and cleaning. 

5. Fight for sustainable consumption

When natural disasters strike, they hit poor communities first and worst. Women make up an estimated 70 percent of those living below the poverty line, and are most likely to bear the impact of climate change.  The majority of economically active women in developing countries are in agriculture (though only 10-20 percent actually own land) which will be massively affected. At the same time, on average, women tend to have smaller ecological footprints, they tend to recycle more and they make more sustainable choices for their households and businesses (United Nations). Supporting the transition to a sustainable and circular economy will protect and empower women everywhere.

A focus on these five areas can make a difference to gender parity and should be on the agenda of consumer advocates everywhere in our fight for a fair, safe and sustainable marketplace for everyone. Wishing all Consumers International members a happy and health International Women’s Day 2020. We look forward to your feedback and ideas.

For more read the United Nations 2020 report on progress over the past 25 years and their five focus areas: UN Women.