“The debate about gender and the market can’t be won with a single sentence—or with a single disputed statistic like the 80% figure. It is a nuanced discussion.”
In what is perhaps his most famous interview appearance yet—which currently stands at over 12 million views and 300,000 likes—Jordan Peterson had a particularly interesting response to his interviewer’s claim that “markets are dominated by men.” With a striking fierceness that was absent from his other answers, he rejected the possibility of such a reality. Instead, he argued that “the market is dominated by women” and stressed his point that women “make 80% of the consumer decisions.”
This line of argument remained largely uncontested by his Channel 4 counterpart—an uncharacteristic action for a host that had been and remained extremely combative for the duration of the program. Cathy Newman’s choice not to press Dr. Peterson’s point is perhaps to be expected, given that this statistic has been echoed by major media sources for years as indisputable fact. As an excellent investigative piece by The Wall Street Journal recognized, however, this “fact” is rather an echo; everyone repeats it, but nobody quite knows where it originated from.
Where does it actually come from then? Many cite it as coming from the pen of one Marti Barletta, who is part-women’s marketing consultant and part-author. She has published three books, all of which are on the subject of marketing towards women, and the “80% figure” comes from one that was published in 2002, aptly titled Marketing to Women. When pressed on its veracity, she admitted that even she had no idea if it were actually true or not, conceding that it was nothing more than a “rule-of-thumb number” with little statistical backing. In reality, when it comes to the role of women in the economy, the situation is much more complicated.
There is conflicting information on either side of the “women-dominate” versus the “women-don’t-dominate” debate. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), as The Wall Street Journal reported, determined in 2008 that both genders regularly claim to be responsible for the majority of consumer decision-making. Women self-identified as making 73% of consumer decisions. The men, polled separately, said they, rather than their female counterparts, made the majority of the decisions. But BCG apparently decided to publish only the dataset of the women’s answers, further contributing to this narrative that it is the women making these unilateral calls about what to buy.
So I don’t blame Dr. Peterson for recycling that statistic—after all, it has been brought to the table many times, from Forbes to Fast Company. He’s also not entirely wrong, as women do seem to dominate in some areas household spending sectors, including vacation destinations, for example. They are reportedly also rapidly catching up when it comes to choice of technology products. So the 80% figure is less of a lie than it is an oversimplification. With that being said, if Peterson’s response had been completely grounded in established fact, would it have necessarily acted as a strong enough counter to Newman’s original claim of the existence of a patriarchal market? I don’t think so.
The intent of her assertion wasn’t to argue that men make the bulk of consumer decisions, but rather that men control the market as a whole. That is a significant distinction and warrants a completely different type of discussion. She was arguing that given men’s positions of power in management and production, they would be able to—purposely or implicitly—create a market climate that favors men as opposed to women.
They might be doing this unconsciously rather than intentionally, so it is likely an overstatement to say that they are out to get their wives, sisters, and daughters. If men are the ones making decisions on corporate boards, it stands to reason that they are making far-reaching decisions without an overabundance of female input. And there probably is little in the way of malice on their part. But, even if women do indeed control a fair amount of consumer spending, it’s all taking place in a market orchestrated by men, opening the door for a potential mismatch in gender parity.
Furthermore, as Newman herself points out, even if the majority of consumers are, in fact, women, then even more people are potentially susceptible to being ripped off by the existence of a so-called “pink tax.” The “pink tax” famously suggests that merchandise geared towards women can cost more than products aimed at men. An example of this potential pink tax, as USA Today tells us, occurs when comparing two toys: “one red scooter cost[s] $24.99 and a pink scooter cost[s] $49, despite them being identical in all other ways.”
The debate about gender and the market can’t be won with a single sentence—or with a single disputed statistic like the 80% figure. It is a nuanced discussion, warranting conversations on theories like the gender pay gap, the unintended consequences of gender composition in management, and maternity leave. Although sound bites from interviews such as these might make for a compelling talking point, to be truly useful, they need to be complemented by the complete range of quantitative data on a complicated subject.
Matthew Pinna is a student at the University of Chicago.