There is no topic raising a broader interest in cultural sociology as the evolution of femininity and gender roles. This is however not a contribution in the women’s study discussion; it’s a practical exploration of what we can expect in the next few years. If you work in a business that engages with women, then it will shed useful light on the directions that femininity, its models and its expressions, will take in the next few years. The recent history of femininity may look like a gradual, continuous path to more empowerment – which we expect will continue. The reality is not that clear.
Here’s what we think we know
Femininity was shaped around the social role and space women have been given through times. At the dawn of humanity, due to the difference in physical strength women were relegated to the role of mothers and caregivers, while men faced the challenges of the outer world; reproduction and care were the activities women were to be in charge of. Through centuries, countries and cultures, that biological division sat the bases for a relationship of dominance. Men took control and prevailed over women, gradually affirming their superiority, and defining femininity in contrast.
That relation has determined, and in many respects still determines, access, pay, legal status, participation, political and individual roles. With the brave exceptions of single individuals, novelists, actresses, saints, dancers or singers, who took their own chances, the majority of women have followed patterns decided by others.
Things gradually changed as access to contraception allowed women to plan births, and access to work gave them independence. As always, technology leads the change, legislation and culture follow. Today, beyond some leftovers of stereotyping, sexification and different consideration that women might still need to face and address (welcome to #metoo), they are freer as they have never been before…
But reality is not that simple.
And importantly, this notion of a gradual path to empowerment does not allow us to predict what femininity will look like tomorrow. First, because the movement towards feminine empowerment is not as constant as it looks – it’s enough to look at today’s movements against abortion rights across the world to understand this. Second, because this choppy but steady empowerment path raises just as many questions as it solves.
What does fully empowered femininity look like then when feminine values were traditionally the “softer” ones? Does femininity dissolve into equal power? How will the relationships between men and women continue to evolve? What tensions in societies will accompany this gradual evolution? In other words, can we imagine how the archetypes of femininity will evolve tomorrow – when we were told in turn that feminine empowerment looked like a Dove ad, a Malala speech and a Rihanna clip?
Predicting the future is a long-time human dream, and we are not there yet. But societal changes have their internal logic – like understanding the move of currents in the atmosphere allows predicting the weather of the next days, the understanding of societal currents and waves allows peeking at tomorrow.
Our predicting tool is called Minds of Tomorrow and harks back to the works by a Belgian university professor named Helmut Gauss. Gauss discovered in the late 90’s the existence of recurrent waves of collective trust and doubt in society, which manifest in changes in culture and behavior. These waves see collective anxiety rise for about 20 years, before it peaks and then declines gradually for another 20 years. Interestingly these waves, which will remind you of the Kondratieff cycles in economic theory, seem to drive the economy, rather than following it.
More interesting for us is that these waves determine the way we see the world, the way we relate, and the way we consume. Periods of growing trust – for instance, from the early 50’s to the end of the 60’s, or from the early 90’s to the late 2000 – see us open up, accept differences, embrace less traditional male/female roles, value exploration and the discovery of the unknown. Benetton and the Beach Boys, the flower power and Dove, the civil rights movement, Obama and Facebook are all the fruits of rising trust.
Periods of rising anxiety – from the early 30’s to the end of the 40’s, from the 70’s to the end of the 80’s, and then since the early 2010’s – see us clamp down, gradually focus on our fears, challenge differences. They also lead us to come back to the reassuring certainty of known models, in particular in the relationships between men and women. Depeche Mode and organic vegetables, Rihanna and Donald Trump are the produce, all in their own way, of a world that grows anxious.
A major part of our behaviors is hence not determined by reason but by subconscious, cultural processes. Which I know, feels unnatural to accept. Yet it shapes us, and it shapes in particular our views on femininity.
Take a look at how femininity expressions evolved in the past decades:
Start in the 60s: we can almost breathe the hope and trust that characterized those years because anxiety was releasing its grip. The future was open, and so its possibilities. Feminine icons were the ‘daughters of the flowers’, think of iconic women like Twiggy, Jane Birkin or and Mia Farrow who borrowed masculinity traits, abandoning strict female codes, tight uncomfortable dresses, high heels. They would wear jeans, leave their hair down and natural, they would smoke, go out and be closer to men in a desire for equality and participation that could only spring in times of trust. Men were at the same time embracing more feminine traits – equally long hair for instance. These were times where the need for a strong differentiation between the feminine and the masculine identity didn’t seem needed.
In the 70s and 80s, we see the manifestations of a rise in anxiety. It’s a time of doubt, the distrust of leaders and institutions peaks, leading to the fall of the Berlin wall. Feminine icons are gaining empowerment and borrow the male codes of power. Think of Grace Jones, her muscles and daring outfits or Farrah Fawcett with her sporty high-waisted denim flare to express power. Yet they allow no room for genders confusion. Think of the iconic movie Grease – women are women, and men are men. These were the years of body craze led by Jane Fonda when feminine beauty in its most powerful expression reigned sovereign.
The 90’s –A growing trust is expressed, and it translates in political change. Germany is reunited, the Apartheid policy ends. Anxiety remains present, and as a consequence the world remains self-driven, all about ambition and growth. The dot.com era is in full boom. Femininity is more diverse than ever: top models and the Spice Girls embody statements of autonomy and self-empowerment.
The 2000’s see a change. As the world grows increasingly confident, we learn to trust others, to not fear differences. America trusts enough to elect Obama. This is a social era, a time where the explosion of internet allows us to explore the world in all its facets. It’s a time of diversity, the time where Dove thrives by telling us that there are millions of ways of being beautiful. Diversity becomes a corporate subject. This is also the boom of reality TV, a democratization of fame where everyone has the right to be famous. Feminine icons like Sex and the City, Suzan Boyle, Lady gaga, Amy Winehouse or Halle Berry express this change.
Today – at the end of the 2010’s – the tide has turned. Trust peaked a few years ago, and it’s now going down. The world has, again, become a place where divisions become more powerful. Walls are built again, populist governments bring back traditional family structures, and refugees are not welcome. People demonstrate against gay marriage and absorption right. We see an ideal of femininity defined and inspired by women themselves, it results in celebrating their own unique femininity, including natural hairs, skin, imperfection and flaws. Think of the #BodyPositive movement, Winnie Harlow or recently Madeline Stuart, the first runaway model with the Down’s syndrome. And we know this will continue. Anxiety, following the Mind of Tomorrow curves, will keep rising until the end of the next decade. This feels scary, but we are in the same place in the anxiety curve as the end of the 30’s.
And what does it mean for women? It’s not that things will go back.
Female contraception has given women the control over their bodies and the liberty to plan when and how many children to have. This freedom meant a far broader right for women: that of start deciding about their own future.
Internet opened worlds and possibilities to women which in the past had been unknown. The invention of the World Wide Web has changed the way we think, consider distances, possibilities, relationships, and the way we do things. Among the good and the bad things that internet has made of us, the web has definitely opened possibilities to women. It has meant more freedom of expression, employment opportunities, less isolation, information and education, and therefore capacity to discern and self-growth.The internet also gave women access to financial services and banking, and the opportunity to work from remote building their own independence. And this is true across countries, even in low income ones where access and adoption of internet collides with cost, literacy and cultural norms.
Contraception and internet empowered women with something that could never be taken back from them, so that femininity will not return to what was there before in a previous wave. It will rather continue to evolve into new directions. But the changes brought by technology will clash with the cultural backlash that we are now used to: when anxiety rises, society becomes less permissive, and starts searching for rules and certainties. Did you that Tinder is already out of fashion? Expect a return to individualism, with people fearing the future and therefore trying to take control over their lives, relying in strong powers and authorities, closing down on what is known.
What does it mean for femininity? We make 8 bets on tomorrow
In an ever-growing melting pot of cultures, values and beliefs, women will feel the need to assert their feminine identity even stronger. We can actually expect women clan-like groups to flourish. Both genders will show stronger than ever, marking the gap that differentiate them. We will see more masculine men, and more feminine women. And can see weak signals of this appearing already, with a myriad of strong women appearing as role models. In the future, expect more polarity between women. While today, they are all one fighting the masculine domination, tomorrow, they will have a stronger need to assert their single identity and to fight for it.
To take advantage of that movement, forget mass branding – market for clans, daring strong, well-defined points of view.
SERVE A CAUSE
Paradoxically, in uncertain periods, people are more inclined to take action, to feel they have an impact. Women will engage more and more in social causes. Every star will stand for her own cause to battle for, more than it’s already happening. We already see 6 out of 10 celebrities embracing a cause, whether it is for gender equality, animal rights or refugees. Tomorrow, expect female activism to become a norm.
To take advantage of that movement, serve a cause. Not as a side aspect of your business, distrust of institutions will lead to a fear of purpose washing. But what you do with your products, at the core. See Patagonia putting environmental protection at the core of its business, or Stella McCartney building a business around sustainable fashion.
MAKE FAMILIES FEEL LIKE FAMILIES AGAIN
The role of family will stand stronger. As a safe haven and a protected zone. We already see a stronger demand of marital faithfulness and marriage as an institution to respect will grow back in relevance. Divorce rates are starting to fall again. Expect more regulation in our relationships. People will invest more in the family and as a consequence, divorce rates will go down. The #metoo movement will further reinforce this. There will be less tolerance to ambiguity. Clear rules and unambiguous norms will be embraced.
To take advantage of that movement, help families feel like families – not just the traditional ones: in anxiety times families will look different, but share the same values.
People will increasingly embrace the past, their roots and traditions to regain self-assertion as spontaneous in times of doubts. Women will rely on a stronger sense of traditional identity. They will not look at traditions as regressive anymore, they will actually become expressive of one’s roots. The future will see women choosing a system that values them, that doesn’t offer them secondary roles only, but offers them a stronger sense of identity. Look at # UsToo or the young American conservative women who don’t recognize themselves either in the patriarchal conservative party or the liberal femininity movement. We already see some women proudly embracing a more radical identity. Expect more women to choose a system as a compass to navigate in the complexity of life.
To take advantage of that movement celebrate your roots – don’t go vintage, anxiety is too high for nostalgia, but show they give you the expertise to build the world you want.
SERVE WOMEN IN ALL THEIR RICHNESS
We said in times of anxiety we need to better differentiate the masculine from the feminine. In the years to come we can expect to see a return to more defined roles models between the two genders. Women will no longer fight to be ‘liberated’, actually feeling more secure in traditional role patterns that will become relevant again, providing a so needed reassuring view on life. We already see backlash on social progress like abortion rights and gay marriage in the US and Latin America. Expect part of society to hold on to more traditional cultural and social divisions.
To take advantage of that movement serve women in their richness acknowledging the wonders and challenges of being both hyper in charge, and hyper-feminine. Think of Billie, re-inventing the way to talk about feminine hair, and the Brazilian Itau Bank, offering dedicated banking services for women entrepreneur.
Under a generalized feeling of insecurity people will want to present themselves as stronger, better and more powerful taking back visible codes of status and prestige. If in times of trust, in fact, those codes are regarded as rather immature and should not be shown off, in times of anxiety women will retrieve them as they help us assert who we are. We already see a growth in sales of luxury items. Expect people to want more visible status signs. Advances in technology will allow to shape extreme details and customize products even more.
GO BEYOND RATIONAL
We will see a return to supreme powers to help us deal (and reassure us) in troubled times. Women will be receptive to irrationality and magical-mythical forms of thought. Astrology, paranormal sciences, telekinesis, witches, fortune tellers, gambling and betting will gain in trustworthiness. We already see the comeback of religious practices. Expect more faithfulness in paranormal to deal with fate in an alarming context.
To take advantage of that movement, go beyond pure rationality. In anxiety times, a brand is a cult. Look at SUPREME, who started out in a small store on the Lafayette Street and has since grown its way to legendary global status.
On more practical behaviors, anxiety will make us move; women will put in place one of the best anxiety reduction strategy, sport. They will look for individual customization to make their identity and body stronger and more defined, as well as better prepared for what could come. We already see women embracing sport to be fit. Expect women to invest traditional male sports and competitions and expanded opportunities in mixed gender sports.
To take advantage of that movement, bring back the movement. Think of Under Armour, offering a picture of driven, hungry and beautiful feminine athletes, or Lululemon, building an feminine brand with the hashtag #sweat.
For large brands, high anxiety times can be tough to navigate. The time of massive movements is over, and a flurry of smaller companies will have an easier time than ever offering solution to the many feminine clans that appear, at a time where institutions (and large companies) are questioned. Yet they are fertile: brands work when they provide us with ways to reduce our tensions. In times of anxiety, they are more needed than ever.