NEW YORK (MainStreet)—In today's society, we often strive for gender equality, but how marketers can recognize and capitalize upon gender differences was a hot topic at this year's Internet Week New York, which launched this Monday.

Although sweeping generalizations about certain groups can be dangerous, thinking about how men and women are different can often lead to greater sensitivity in the ways that companies approach their marketing toward a female demographic.

On Monday, Internet Week was home to a panel discussion that addressed this issue with a particular focus on how women use technology differently than men and what ramifications that has for marketers. Panelists included Shelley Zalis, CEO of Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange; Emily Crawford, Regional Sales Manager of U.S. Enterprise Sales at Cisco; Alice Han, Senior Designer/Product Lead at Zappos Labs; and Sarah Kramer, Global Managing Director at Starcom MediaVest.

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What Makes a Product Compelling for Women?

In a separate keynote address, James McQuivey, Ph.D., a principal analyst at Forrester Research, argued that women think about the ultimate use of technology, how it can help their own lives, rather than the impressive technical specifications. Instead of being spurred by an "Oh, shiny!" ethos, they're swayed by what the technology can do for them.

As Zalis said, "Women are not looking for tech for technology's own sake but rather for simplicity, usefulness."

Meanwhile, Han said that women look for intuitive designs. "I've seen a lot of research that women like things that are intuitive," she said. "That doesn't mean dumbed down; it just means women have less tolerance for bad user experiences, because we're multi-taskers."

According to Zalis, women are more visual and narrative-driven.

"Women also love visualization and stories, not just features on a checklist, but things that really let them see value in their lives," she said. "When you go to tech labs, some are run by women, and it's fascinating to see what they're working on versus what the men are working on. Many of the labs I've seen are working on things like how to bring books to life for kids, making them more friendly and engaging. That's in contrast to just gadgets and goggles."

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Differences in the Female Buying Experience

Crawford noted that women tend to go online to do more research before buying. "There are five steps in the buying process," she said, "and women own four of them exclusively. The fifth and last step is actually purchasing, which they co-own with men."

Plus, women are responsible for buying $5 trillion worth of products in the U.S. and are responsible for 80% of product decision-making, according to Zalis.

Not only does that make women a powerful demographic for marketers, but it also means that successful brands should prize communication and digestible information when trying to reach a female audience.

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In addition to representing substantial buying power, women might even be more valuable customers for some brands. Han said, "It's emerged in social media that women who follow brands are much more loyal than men who follow brands, so capturing a woman and engaging her in your brand is even more important nowadays than in the past."

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Being Wary of Stereotypes

In trying to create a product that will be intuitive and helpful to women, brands need to be careful around old stereotypes.

Zalis pointed to a tablet released recently called the Femme. "It was an e-pad that was just pink, with apps like yoga and recipes," she said. "Stereotyping things for the sake of it doesn't work."

Instead, she thinks some of the most successful products that appeal to women—and to everyone—occur when men and women collaborate, maximizing both functionality and user friendliness. "

Similarly, Kramer points to Spotify as a product that has special resonance for many women, moms in particular, without patronizing or playing in to stereotypes. "I don't think of it as a female product, yet it's created a whole family tech revolution in my household," she said.

Especially when creating marketing focused on emotional connections, you have to stick the landing.

"When creating marketing focused on emotional connections, you have to get it right," Crawford said. "There was a Motrin moms commercial last year intended to talk about women who made the courageous choice to wear their babies on their bodies, but unfortunately Motrin's messaging made it come across as a fad. Many mothers thought it was belittling and there was an incredible backlash. You have to be very careful, especially when targeting the emotional decisions mothers make."

Would Brands Get it Right More if Women Were at the Helm?

The obvious question is whether more female product engineers would pave the way for products that do a better job of speaking to women's needs. "One of the first things we have to do is not call it engineering," Zalis said. "Women love being 'technologists' but not 'engineers.' That's one of the big challenges I've heard. When people talk about engineering, they think of building a building, not a new disruptive sticky way of living. Technology is sticky and edgy ... engineering, not so much."

Although this is a controversial argument—that the problem is women blinded by the terminology rather than a society that discourages women in technical fields—Zalis insisted that, while this should be a topic for continued conversation, it's a complaint she's heard from women at the MIT Media Lab, one of the foremost engineering and innovation hubs in the country.

Kramer agrees that more female product designers and engineers have the potential to change the landscape of tech today, and that more women are diving in. 'Women want to fill a need," she said. "Look at UrbanSitter. It's about seeing a need and filling it."

Crawford suggested that, regardless of the terminology around engineering, one of the keys to engaging more women is to emphasize the aspect of the job that involves problem-solving and creative designing rather than static engineering.

McQuivey actually notes that some of these gender differences may actually make women better tech disruptors than men. Because of their focus on end results, ease of use and the utility for individuals, women have a unique perspective on product development, he believes. This has the potential to benefit female target markets as well as male ones, and, given the outsized buying power women have, could have long-reaching implications.

Written by Allison Kade for MainStreet