It’s simple even though it’s not

Editor Jennifer Horn on why embracing a more nuanced understanding of gender is less complicated than it might seem.

This story originally appeared in the January/February issue of strategy.

The first step in solving any problem is admitting there is a problem.

Some issues – like our planet is dying – are generally accepted; while others – gender dysphoria is real – are less so. The former is backed by science and foolproof. Gender identity, however, is a socio-cultural construct and a lot more nuanced.

Take Billy Dee Williams. Just before the holidays, the 82-year-old Star Wars actor was widely reported as having “come out” as gender-fluid after telling Esquire: “I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine.” Williams’ disclosure supported the fact that gender is not only fluid among the Gen Z and Millennial enclave, the Greatest Generation is also speaking up. A week later, however, the actor retracted his statements, asking The Undefeated: “What the hell is gender-fluid?” Williams stressed that he was simply “talking about men getting in touch with the female side of themselves” but then went on to conflate gender identity with sexuality, saying “I wasn’t talking about sex, I wasn’t talking about being gay or straight.”

It’s that complicated.

While confusing for some, the evolving and expanding gender spectrum is by no means a passing fad. Nonbinary erasure – the refusal to acknowledge genders that sit outside the gender binary of male and female – is a problem that requires recognition. Because it’s not just a human concern for today, it’s quickly becoming a business concern for tomorrow. Gen Z (or “The Plurals”) is coming. They’re growing up in a pluralistic society, which means having a deeper understanding of diverse people and ideas. They’re pushing against nonbinary erasure and, simultaneously, binary thinking.

Therein lies the concept behind this month’s cover of strategy. With limited space to address the nuanced issue that includes the business implications of gender identity, we chose simplicity. The cover endorses a solution many experts have been plugging: forget gender altogether.

Reporter Kristyn Anthony spoke to anthropologists, researchers, media pundits and marketers for the cover feature to explore this idea of removing gendered thinking. They recommend brands see consumers not by their pronoun, but by their person. Just assume gender-neutrality and that everyone is “they,” and then follow the behavioural/pyschographic/lifestyle/anything-but-gender data.

Not only does the removal of blanket male and female targeting move the industry forward on inclusion by inviting those outside the binary into the conversation – it also removes stale gender-based stereotypes that still, to this day, plague advertising (read: stationary bikes as gifts for skinny wives from creepy husbands does nothing to improve the prospects of equality).

It’s that simple.