Sorry, Young Man, You're Not the Most Important Demographic in Tech

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Despite companies' hamfisted, male-focused marketing efforts, women are the dominant users of a wide variety of new technologies.

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A young man contemplating his decreasing significance on the world stage (Shutterstock/Tracy Whiteside).

If you're a man between the ages of 18 and 35, you used to be tech industry's most coveted prize. You were the one who decided what products failed and what products succeeded. That's why companies like Asus tweet ridiculous, sexist stuff. That's one reason why less than 10 percent of venture capital-backed companies have female founders and there is a massive gender gap in tech. The technology industry's focus on men is reflexive and all too intuitive to the men who run the companies. And it's built on a plain wrong reading of the reality of the market.

I hate to tell you/us, but we're not as important as we thought. The body of evidence amassed by Intel researcher Genevieve Bell indisputably shows that men's role in technology adoption continues to be overstated. Here's a summary she gave of her work in a "Big Ideas" talk last month at Australia's Radio National:

It turns out women are our new lead adopters. When you look at internet usage, it turns out women in Western countries use the internet 17 percent more every month than their male counterparts. Women are more likely to be using the mobile phones they own, they spend more time talking on them, they spend more time using location-based services. But they also spend more time sending text messages. Women are the fastest growing and largest users on Skype, and that's mostly younger women. Women are the fastest category and biggest users on every social networking site with the exception of LinkedIn. Women are the vast majority owners of all internet enabled devices--readers, healthcare devices, GPS--that whole bundle of technology is mostly owned by women.

Sit with this for a minute. Let me break out the categories where women are leading tech adoption:

  • Internet usage
  • Mobile phone voice usage
  • Mobile phone location-based services
  • Text messaging
  • Skype
  • Every social networking site aside from LinkedIn
  • All Internet-enabled devices
  • E-readers
  • Health-care devices
  • GPS

Also, because women still are the primary caretakers of children in many places, guess who controls which gadgets the young male and female members of the family get to purchase or even use? More from Bell:

Furthermore, most consumers don't own devices just by themselves, those devices exist within social networks. Consumers share devices in families, so that a mobile phone is owned by multiple people, a laptop is used by multiple people, an email account is used by multiple people.

All this to say: there are clear business reasons for technology companies to focus their efforts on women. But few do. In fact, I'd contend that women are using these technologies despite the advertising and ethos of many tech and Internet companies.

Even advertisements that nominally target both genders sometimes do so in ways that are subtly sexist. Take this analysis by Emma Nicoletti of Apple's ads introducing Facetime, which featured a series of four vignettes.

"Two are a man reassuring a woman regarding her looks, one is about a woman procreating, and one doesn't have a woman in it at all," Nicoletti wrote. "Was the assumption that we, the female iPhone consumers, would think 'well would you look at that. If I buy an iPhone, my boyfriend/husband/whoever will be there for me when I need him! And maybe even tell me my hair looks cute!'? If so, did they think that that would be enough? It's not, Apple."

But let's be fair here: Apple's done better than most. Their ads rarely make gender-specific appeals and the iPhone audience is now admirably balanced, appealing nearly equally to men and women. Nintendo, too, has had great success with products that men and women both alike, effectively doubling their addressable market. It's the great mass of other tech companies that seem to cater almost exclusively to a marketer's fantasy of a young man's interests: machines, scantily clad ladies, etc. At this week's E3 conference or January's Consumer Electronics Show, there really are still "booth babes" who are paid to hang around in revealing clothing chatting up the male nerds.

How can an industry get its market so wrong?

One huge reason is the relative lack of women at major venture capital firms, startups, electronics makers, and Internet companies. The other huge reason is the historical erasure of women's roles in the history of technology, as Xeni Jardin pointed out in response to a New York Times article that overemphasized the role men have played in the creation of the Internet. When you look around, it *seems* as if technology is by and for dudes, but the reality is much more complicated than that.

But even if you are the biggest sexist in Menlo Park, even if you believe that only men create technology, even if you are real-life Jack Donaghy hell bent on profits alone, you'd still want to change your approach to women as technology consumers. Follow the money and follow the users: you'll find yourself in a female-dominated landscape.

Bell concludes:

So it turns out if you want to find out what the future looks like, you should be asking women. And just before you think that means you should be asking 18-year-old women, it actually turns out the majority of technology users are women in their 40s, 50s and 60s. So if you wanted to know what the future looks like, those turn out to be the heaviest users of the most successful and most popular technologies on the planet as we speak.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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