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Politics, neuroscience and marketing — oh my! Raising women’s participation in workforce opportunity programs

  • Joanna
  • September 12, 2016

New buildings. Fresh food. A beautiful setting. And, most of all, opportunity to develop knowledge and skills that will transform lives.

Oh, and it doesn’t cost a cent.

Yet, as of June, the New Hampshire Job Corps Center, which can take up to 150 women at a time, only had 73 enrolled.

“I know there are females out there,” director Tamer Koheil told reporter Mark Hayward of the Union Leader newspaper. “I’m trying to find out exactly what’s the problem.”

Koheil is not alone. The truth is that potentially life-changing programs have long struggled to reach the people who could benefit the most.

As far back as 1986, for example, a study of early high school re-engagement and completion programs in California by one of our favorite education researchers, David Stern, demonstrated that many were ineffective not for a lack of adequate educational strategies, but because individuals who could benefit simply did not know about the program. A quarter-century later, a program intended to recover and graduate thousands of students in Texas was facing the very same problem — it had fallen far short of its goal, primarily because of trouble tracking down the people it intended to help.

Women, in particular, can be hard to reach. That’s because a lot of the strategies used to market life-changing programs to women were established in a world designed by men. And yes, this is true even when those programs are being implemented by women. Basic expectations of how the world works don’t change overnight, after all.

Ezra Klein recently offered a treatise on how this works in the political world as a way of trying to explain why Hillary Clinton has significantly higher approval ratings when she is actually in a job than when she is campaigning for the job. Regardless of your political leanings, Klein’s piece is worthy of some time and thought. He doesn’t buy Clinton’s reasons for this “gap,” by the way; he has offered his own explanation. Put simply: The rules of campaigning, set long ago in a world very different from the one in which we now live, have programmed to expect campaigners to act one way. A very male way. A very white male way, in fact — which also might help explain why white men make up less than a third of the U.S. population, but hold two-thirds of elective offices (and an even greater percentage of Congress.)

“We ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them,” Klein notes, conceding that he is stating the obvious. “You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.”

And, as it turns out, the expectations we’ve set up for persuading people to vote for one person over another aren’t too much different than the expectations we’ve set up for persuading people to do anything. From news to advertising to change-your-life opportunities, we’re still largely communicating in a way that is designed to speak to men — even when we really want to talk to women.

That gets us back to the problem facing the New Hampshire Job Corps Center, and many workforce opportunity programs across the nation. How do we convince more women to take advantage of these opportunities? By embracing many different styles of persuasion, including those that may have a better chance of reaching women (and also reaching men who might not respond in a traditionally “male way” to conventional methods of persuasion.)

Marketing strategy expert Jenny Darroch encourages people who wish to persuade across all gender boundaries to imagine a continuum, anchored at one end by an extreme “male” brain and at the other end by an extreme “female” brain. At one end of this spectrum (based on research by research by one of Britain’s leading experts on cognitive neuroscience) we have “systematizing” and at the other “empathizing” — and you can probably guess which end is which when it comes to gender identity.

Right now, when it comes to trying to persuade people to buy into a life-changing program, we tend to market to the systematizing mind. We tell people that it will increase their incomes and help them provide for their families. We ask for quick decisions. We expect people to trust us to know what is right for them based on our status. When people share their distress, we tell them how we can fix it. And we talk about how great our program is — a lot.

What we don’t do very well is listen, which is a far more conducive strategy to persuading the empathizing mind to do something. We don’t take turns sharing our experiences. We don’t respond empathetically to distress. We don’t offer and exhibit altruistic and reciprocal relationships. We don’t give people lots of time to make decisions that are, in fact, really big choices about their lives. We don’t talk about the way involvement in a program will make us feel and emote, instead we focus on goals and objectives.

None of this is to suggest that we should abandon strategies that cater to people with systematizing minds, but if we want to ensure more women are taking advantage of the programs that can improve their lives, we need to ensure that we’re communicating across this spectrum.