Mean Girls: Where Female-Focused Business Fails
Contributed by Sarah Tan July 20, 2017
Nobody likes feeling cheated. The realisation comes in the form of a gut-wrenching moment, particularly when money is involved. It is the sinking feeling that you should have known better or that someone has intentionally played on your better nature. This betrayal tastes bad enough in business, but I have learned that it is bitterer when served by female-focused services.
I have had two experiences lately with businesses that have done this, and I am, to quote the fictional television anchor Howard Beale from the 1976 film Network, “…mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Both the businesses referred to did not deliver on what they sold, but to make it worse, their lack of professionalism really put a dent in my future advocacy. Their approach to business wasn’t just wrong; it was unacceptable. They hid under their “women-for-women” flag and hoped the problem would go away.
In my years working as a PR and strategic communications consultant, I have come across bad behaviour in corporations in the form of racism, emotional and verbal abuse, sexism, or just embarrassing faux pas.
However, of recent, I am observing that more female entrepreneurs seem to be less accountable to their employees and customers than their male counterparts. The “un-feminist” behaviour highlighted at THINX and Nasty Gal is just the tip of the iceberg. Cultures of bullying, exploitation, lack of transparency and downright disrespect are wrong regardless of who you are and what audience you serve.
Using Solidarity As A Marketing Hook Is A Bad Idea
Why do I feel so much worse when let down by female-focused business? Maybe it is the expectations of solidarity and sisterhood, or that the services offered are marketed to female needs in a personal way. If you run a business that aims to help women perform better professionally, or feel better about their body, then a degree of vulnerability is involved.
If you claim to be the best business or product based on your innate understanding of women’s needs and use encouragement and support as a marketing hook, the expectation is that you will deliver. But I’m not even looking for a friendly face in the two occasions I mentioned at the start. I’m just expecting the fulfilment of a promise, which is what I expect from every company I transact with. I expect to get what I paid for and have it delivered honestly.
How To Avoid Falling Into The Mean Girl Trap
Digging deeper, I find that most female-focused companies never intend to be mean. It’s unchecked attitudes and biases that bring them down. Some of these skewed beliefs are:
- Solidarity forgives sloppy service – Every business should be held to a standard of professionalism. The idea that women might be more forgiving doesn’t mean you can cut corners. One day someone is going to call you out for your sub-par service and demand an explanation.
- Questioning standards shows a lack loyalty – Standing up for herself is one of the greatest lessons a young woman can learn. The art of diplomacy and being objective is a skill that women leaders need to master if they have any hope of hearing the truth. People need to be able to come to you with ideas and opinions without feeling threatened.
- High-school responses are okay in the corporate world – Cold shoulders and being relegated to the “out-group” happens far more often than people might realise. It can be as subtle as not being greeted at Reception or having your inquiries left unanswered.
- Being a woman-led business is PR – Women have been arguing for equality in business, yet we still measure ourselves using a double standard. The question should not be if you are championing female rights, but if your business promotes and practices values that lead to inclusivity. If you’re flying the flag for a woman-led business but fail in service and accountability, you are doing the gender no favours.
If you are a woman entrepreneur who runs a female-focused business, here are some things you can do to ensure that your company isn’t turning into a Mean Girl.
- Invite an expert to experience your business as a ghost customer and undercover employee. Have them tell you how you rate in your Ask them to check for non-inclusive behaviour among your staff and brand community.
- Conduct an anonymous values check. Get your staff to rate the company’s culture against a list of the promises and standards you have set for your business. Do this with a sample of your customers.
- Review engagement activity on social media. Is your online culture a reflection of your company values? How are your followers interacting on Facebook and Instagram? What kind of language are they using and is it acceptable?
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