target women for marketingI’ve talked a lot about women’s purchasing power and the online network of moms sharing product recommendations, but there are a number of subtler considerations that need to be taken into account when targeting women. Let’s take a look at some social shifts that are redefining the age-old question of “what women want,” and if that’s even a particularly useful question to be asking. (Hint: not really.)

Women Are Not a Niche Group

First, let’s take a very broad step back and look at the big picture, and the assumption that marketing “towards women” is a realistic or useful goal. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve recommended a number of strategies for marketing towards women, as if women are a group that can be marketed to as a whole.

But let’s stop for a second, and consider the fact that 50.9% of the population surveyed by the 2010 United States Census selected “female” as their sex. “Marketing to women” therefore actually means “marketing to the majority of the United States,” which is completely beyond the reach of targeted advertising.

If you’re wondering how women in general came to be a niche-like target population, let me put on my gender theorist and women’s historian hat for a moment for a brief explanation. Given a long history of patriarchy and men largely running the show, male has become the “default,” or “gender neutral,” while female is specifically marked as such. Just think about the standard bathroom symbols: men’s restrooms are designated by a very neutral stick figure person, while women’s restroom symbols have a skirt on.

Your first takeaway? Women as a whole are not a specific enough group to market to; it’s necessary to break the category down into subsets like Generation Y moms or single baby boomers.

What Do Women Want, Anyway?

An unfortunate consequence of attempts to target women as a niche group comes from the utter lack of any cohesive understanding of what will appeal to women. This is a pretty obvious result. After all, it’s hard to come up with a prototypical image of a group as broad as “women” that isn’t based on a stereotype that likely doesn’t ring true for a majority of group members.

This had led to a few ideas about how to market to women that simply aren’t based in fact.

Who’s Staying Home?

Let’s talk about ads that show women in the home, for example. It’s an understandable assumption; women do make the vast majority of home-related purchases, from food storage containers to insurance. But according to AdAge, women are 3.5 times more likely than men to be shown in a home environment in an ad. Yet, women make up 50% of the work force, and actually own 4 out of 10 privately held firms. So why aren’t business-related marketing campaigns featuring and targeting women?

And of course, that’s not even getting into the shift we’re seeing towards 50/50 parenting and dads staying at home while moms bring home the bacon. Two years ago, the census counted 176,000 stay at home dads in the US, with 17% of pre-school aged kids being taken care of by dads while their moms are at work. Factor in, also, the 15% of single parents who are male, as well as the growing number of gay dads raising children. Clearly, the idea that mom is staying home cooking and cleaning while dad earns a living is becoming rather outdated. Relevant ads need to reflect this shift.

But Women Like Shopping, Right?

Huge amounts of online commerce advertising are marketed at women. Again, this makes sense. Historically and, to a large extent, currently, women have had far more social pressure to keep up with the latest trends, have a well-kempt appearance, and wear a frequently-evolving wardrobe.

But men also shop online, and they do so extensively. Seven out of 10 men research and buy fashion-related items alone online, and 67% of men make more than one online purchase each month. And it’s not just because it’s easier to shop online in a pair of boxers than to throw on a pair of sweatpants and trek to the store. More and more, men build and represent their identities through fashion and style.

In fact, more than twice the number of millennial men call themselves “fashionable and trendy” than baby boomer men – 38% compared to 16%. Likewise, roughly twice the number of millennial men are willing to spend more money on brands that they feel represent their sense of self than older men.

While these numbers likely still lag behind the number of women who describe themselves as much, it’s important to realize that previously “clear” lines about what men and women want are changing, and changing quickly. Whether or not your business has anything to do with the fashion industry, it’s still key to understand that your assumptions about what will appeal to the category of women is likely uninformed.

What This Means for Woman-Focused Marketing

All of this being said, I am by no means recommending that you totally scrap your woman-focused marketing campaign. However, I am suggesting that you take a very close look at the assumptions that have gone into crafting it, and the specificity of your target market.

Advertising with a stereotypical image of a woman in mind is not going to get you a significant ROI. But understanding current trends of various subsets of the female demographic will. Armed with that information, you can create a woman-focused ad campaign that truly works.

Does your business market to women? Are you aiming at a specific subset, or women in general?

Read more: Making Women’s Day Meaningful On Twitter