PhD student Mycah Harrold works with an undergraduate during a January, 2020, class on research methods.

Mycah Harrold: Doctoral Candidate Studies How Social Norms Influence Women’s Purchases

By Becky Kramer

Mycah Harrold’s doctoral thesis grew out of male colleagues’ remarks about their morning routines. When she heard comments like “I threw on a shirt with buttons,” or “I’ve been up for less than an hour,” it rankled.

“I said, ‘Wait a second. I’ve been up for two hours getting ready to teach,’” recalls Harrold, a doctoral candidate in marketing at the WSU Carson College of Business. “I stewed in my office, thinking about how many products I used, how much I spent on them, and the time I put into styling my hair, applying makeup, and making sure my nail polish wasn’t chipped.”

Harrold’s master’s and undergraduate degrees are in psychology, with a minor in gender studies. Adding a marketing lens, she pondered research possibilities related to double standards for professional appearance among men and women. Her resulting project won the college’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition last spring.

Harrold looked at how identifying as feminist influenced women’s purchases of beauty-related products. “I thought feminists would be opposed to spending money on these types of products,” she says.

The findings were surprising: Women who identified as feminists placed more value—and spent more—on items such as makeup, grooming products, handbags, and other accessories than their nonfeminist peers. The findings are tied to choice, she says.

“Feminists have repositioned behaviors like wearing make-up as things they do for themselves instead of things they do to meet societal expectations,” Harrold says.

By framing beauty routines as a choice, not an obligation, feminists enjoy the activities more and are willing to spend more on those products and accessories, her research concludes.

Coerced consumption in the marketplace

Harrold’s research delves into coerced consumption—when women feel compelled to purchase and use products to meet social norms, says Andrew Perkins, associate professor in the Department of Marketing and International Business.

“Some professional women say they aren’t comfortable going into the office without makeup and a nice outfit, while their male counterpart might be on a Zoom call in a T-shirt and a ball cap,” Perkins says. “The asymmetry is so stark that once you notice it, it’s hard to not see it.”

Harrold’s background in psychology, gender studies, and marketing brings depth to her research, he adds. Harrold says it prompts her to ask different kinds of marketing questions. Analyzing how men and women respond to advertising is a common area of marketing research.

“I’m more interested in how the marketplace drives the consumer’s expression and experience of gender,” she says.

During her doctoral research, Harrold has invited study participants to inventory the contents of their makeup bags. She led a focus group for women executives that included a discussion of professional dress codes. And she’s analyzed the sponsored products featured on female influencers’ social media platforms.

Introducing undergrads to research

Harrold’s enthusiasm for research spills into her teaching. During her time at the Carson College, she’s helped create new research opportunities for undergraduates.

“I like to get undergrads involved in research, especially if they think they might want to get a PhD,” she says. “Research is its own world. You really have to get your hands dirty to know whether it’s going to fuel you for a career.”

Harrold led a reorganization of the college’s Center for Behavioral Business Research, which now uses undergraduate research assistants to oversee the routine aspects of data collection in the laboratory.

She also teaches the capstone class for the Certificate of Academic Achievement in Behavioral Business Research. Using curriculum Harrold developed, undergraduate students strive to replicate landmark studies in consumer behavior.

“I’m a creator,” Harrold says. “I quilt, I knit socks, and I’m learning how to paint with watercolors. But designing that class from scratch, which was so fun, is one of my proudest creations.”

Harrold will graduate in spring 2022, and she’s headed to Regis University in Denver, where she’ll be an assistant professor of marketing. During her time in the Carson College’s doctoral program, she’s developed a reputation for her fresh ideas and energy, teaching skills, and willingness to mentor others, Perkins says.

“She’s been so valuable to the marketing department,” he says. “We’re a better department because she’s been here.”