Understanding of gender is fluid. Will definitions be, too?

In the three years since What the Future last explored gender, the world has changed. Editor Matt Carmichael considers what the future could hold, from new norms to backlashes.

Ipsos | What the Future: Gender | The question of gender progress will not be a direct line
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  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends & Foresight Lab
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What the Future: Gender
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Imagine it’s 2020. Wait, this is What the Future, not What the Past. But the past provides some needed context, because in March 2020 we dropped our first What the Future: Gender issue. And then the world changed.

In early 2020 we released our first Gender issue. The topic was in the spotlight in the #MeToo era. The world changed first with COVID-19 as the pandemic refocused people’s attention. The world changed again in 2022 with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision. That effectively reversed Roe v. Wade, redefining reproductive rights and shifted the political landscape in 2022 and beyond. 

While our 2020 issue focused on changing definitions of gender, the 2023 issue finds us amid a sizable shift as states pass legislation aimed at solidifying gender as binary that you are born and locked into, at least legally. 

That definition is one most agree on today even if the (need for) legislation is a fierce debate. While the long-term vector of gender rights is toward equality and expansion, trends don’t always move in a direct line, in one direction.

We acknowledged but perhaps didn’t lean hard enough into the potential for this shift, writing then that “In an Ipsos survey of men, 31% said they feel excluded from the gender spectrum discussion. A similar number are actively angered by the conversation. Perhaps because 44% feel they will be attacked if they say what they’re thinking.” 

This is a fraught landscape for brands to navigate in terms of their marketing and their products. Yet one thing was true three years ago, and, if anything, seems more so today. America’s youth and young adults have very different ideas than older Americans.

Because the conversation we wrote about then is ongoing, many plausible outcomes and scenarios exist. Of course, there is much more to say about gender than this cultural debate. We get into several of those topics as well.

This is why we chose our cover image. It’s unclear what sex the child is. There are no blue or pink clues. Will our cover baby grow up in a world with a fluid or binary definition of gender? 

How will this child express itself in fashion? Growing up, will this child feel represented and reflected in media and in advertising? How will this child represent itself in an era where social media both shapes and reflects our identities?

In essence, every foresight project is an exercise in asking what kind of worlds might our children grow up in.

Today, a sizable group think gender is a fluid construct, not determined by your biology — even if a very small proportion identify their gender fluidly. A majority think gender is a binary you’re born into. Most people think gender stereotypes in media are a problem, as is objectification/sexualization of women. Few think these problems will get better. But as the tensions driving the future shift, will things improve, or worsen?

Most think that their gender is important to their work, life and relationships. Cashing in on identities can potentially level the playing field for athletes and influencers. But there are often trade-offs to be made in how people of different genders portray themselves and the reactions they get from others. 

Gender equality for women athletes and women’s sports are just part of this conversation. So is the opportunity for trans athletes to compete, which is an outsized conversation today given how few people it directly affects. But it does affect something many people care about: sports.

And where do men fit into all this discussion? It’s a question men seem to be having as hard a time answering as anyone. Some are allies in efforts to promote equality. Some think we have reached equality. Some men think they are now the oppressed gender. And as the historical gender roles have changed in the home, workplace and in the entertainment and political spheres, men are struggling to understand their place.

For brands, every case is unique. Every step features potential backlash, and potential backlashes to the backlash. Backlash whiplash, if you will. Yet keep stepping brands must, because even if you want the future to look more like the past, it won’t be in the past. The future is always in the future, and it could look something like … everything we talk about in this issue.

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The future of gender: How brands can navigate pronouns, policies and politics


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The author(s)
  • Matt Carmichael What the Future editor and head of the Ipsos Trends & Foresight Lab