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Cookbooks: A Way of Redressing the Female Data Gap?



INFLUENCER: M&C Saatchi's Sara Barqawi on a hidden source of data about women

Cookbooks: A Way of Redressing the Female Data Gap?

At least 60% of Britons believe there’s too much data out there about them. In reality, there’s actually a deficit of data on women. 

We’re not talking creepy internet data. We’re talking about all the data that city planners, innovators and inventors have collected, that shape our lives. Over sixteen chapters of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez demonstrates how society is inherently biased towards men, because men have always been the default.  

It explains why VR headsets almost never fit on women’s heads, and why women are 47% more likely to get seriously injured in a car accident. Dimensions on prototypes and test dummies are all based on the male form.  

Although there’s a huge way to go when it comes to data about women, there is a hidden source at our fingertips. 


I haven’t arrived at cookbooks because of cultural or sexist stereotypes. Rather, women are 22% more likely to own cookbooks, and control at least 70% of household spending. Upon requesting a picture of everyone at my workplace’s bookshelves, only 15% of respondents were men. All bar two had caveated that the cookbooks belonged to their mums or partners. 

If we look behind the glossy covers of cookbooks, they can paint a rich picture of what women want or need. They can reveal lifestage, mindset, fashion trends, ethics, memories and cultural links. Smells, flavours, even names of dishes, can transport us to a childhood, a forgotten homeland, or the memories of your last holiday. 

I’ve examined the top 100 cookbook list, courtesy of Amazon, and stress-tested my hypothesis by reviewing the bookshelves of 40 colleagues. They compartmentalise into five categories: 

1) Accessibility

We all want good food that’s accessible. However, life can put constraints on what you may be able to achieve in the kitchen, and one segment of cookbooks is devoted to removing each barrier whether it be the time you have available to cook, the money you have to spend on food or the skills at your disposal. Examples include: 

- Time pressures – Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals, or Gordon Ramsay’s, Quick and Delicious

- Price pressures – Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a Bootstrap, or Miguel Barclay's One Pound Meals

- The quest for simplicity/ease – Yotam Ottolenghi’s Simple, Diana Henry’s, Simple or any cookbook that’s aimed at feeding children.

2) A Connection to your roots

In the age of globalisation, the likelihood of you belonging to multiple cultures is quite high. Some cookbooks are instrumental in helping people revisit to their roots. 

- E.g. Sammi Tamimi’s Falastin, or JP Mahon’s The Irish Cookbook

3) Curiosity, travel and exoticism

… or sometimes, the very same cookbooks, like Falastin, can satisfy a curiosity, a need to visit a different land or to enjoy a culinary novelty.

4) Ethically minded - Jack Monroe’s Vegan-ish, or Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail

5) Health consciousness - Tom Kerridge’s Lose Weight and Get Fit, or Dr Rupy Aujla’s 'The Doctor's Kitchen' series

Some, of course, straddle a few categories. Joe Wick’s Veggie Lean in 15 satisfies those who are time pressured and health conscious, and would also appeal to the environmentally minded. 

Let’s look at my shelf. It has three (and a bit) cookbooks on it. These are:

   1) Reem Kassis’, The Palestinian Table. A poor attempt to connect with some of my heritage, as an excuse to cover up the fact I’ve got the spoken Arabic of a seven-year-old.

   2) Jamie Oliver’s, 15-Minute Meals. Purchased after feeling guilty for ordering a takeout when I really couldn’t afford one.

   3)  Jack Monroe’s Tin Can Cook. Handy in the event of an apocalypse – now coming into its own. 

   And a bit) A sodden and stapled-together set of Indian recipes I’ve collected from my Indian aunties, to help me recreate some of the things they made during my childhood.

We can identify more than four states on my shelf: a heritage crisis, nostalgia, the need for comfort, being time-poor, the desire for self-improvement, some thriftiness, optimism and preparedness. 

This is what makes cookbooks a particularly interesting research tool. They allow you to step away from a strict segmentation approach, where people can only belong to a single category, and paint a richer picture of audiences. People don’t sit neatly in a single segmented category: they own multiple cookbooks reflecting their different need states. 

So how can we tap into this multi-dimensional source of insight? At present, it’s too niche for TGI, so you’d probably have to just ask the question. Unlike food historians, who have understood the value of cookbooks for years, we have the benefit of subjects who are still alive. Of course, not everyone has a collection of cookbooks, or the space to store them. Trends and web searches for recipe genres mapped onto demographic profiles can also  offer a complementary data stream. However you gather your insights, they can give a window into the target’s needs, circumstances, hopes, fears and desires. 

The next time you commission qual, break the ice with a question on people’s cookbook shelves. You’ll get far more than you bargained for. It might be as direct as informing supermarket innovation based on needstates, or as lateral as understanding how someone might consider choosing a holiday. After all, you aren’t born directly into all your cookbook choices; your cookbook choices are shaped by your life as a whole. 

Sara Barqawi is strategist at M&C Saatchi

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M&C Saatchi London, Thu, 09 Apr 2020 12:35:02 GMT