No shopaholic jokes, please: do women really want special credit cards?

That was a question we had while attending an analyst day at MasterCard Inc.´s Purchase, N.Y. headquarters last month. In a panel discussion, Timothy H. Murphy, the network´s group executive of core products, mentioned its "cards for women" as an example of its innovations abroad.

Our feminist radar pinged. (Decades of struggling for economic parity: priceless?)

Of course, since women are the largest consumer group and often control household spending, many companies have ample reason to try to cultivate their business. So we asked Murphy to explain his company´s thinking - and its careful development of products that, he acknowledged, have the potential to come off as "patronizing."

"It´s about building a specific set of features and benefits around that card and then some marketing around it," he said in an interview. "Sometimes we get stuck-up here," assuming "that innovation has to be this massive network play. Sometimes innovation can be a very simple insight at the far end in terms of a consumer benefit."

MasterCard and its issuer partners have tweaked marketing, product features, and even card design around its different cards for women. Looking for pink glosses and sparkles? Not quite, although France´s "carte bancaire réservée aux femmes" comes close.

"Fancy, flowery stuff is patronizing and doesn´t work in Germany. But in France, the women´s card program, it´s like it´s actually textured. It looks like crocodile ... and it´s gold," Murphy said. "It´s just a cool little thing that has gotten traction."

That traction is important in the battle for share against Visa Inc., which - especially in debit, especially in the United States - outpaces MasterCard.

"The issue to me is just segments, finding some unique solutions and trying to innovate a little bit in those spaces where the other guys, who frankly have a larger share in affluent than we do, might have overlooked," Murphy said.

Those other guys do offer some similar programs: a Visa spokesman said it offered cards for women "a little" but did not provide more detail. (First Gulf Bank in the United Arab Emirates introduced a "Ladies Card" Visa, with shopping discounts, in 2006.)

A spokeswoman for American Express Co. said, "Many of our benefits on our card are skewed to women and cater to women's passions and interests such as access to fashion events, retail benefit [and] family-focused vacation offers," but Amex's only specific product is an online "club" in Japan that offers special benefits to women cardholders. Discover Financial Services said that it did not offer woman-centric cards either in the U.S. or via its Diners Club International network abroad.

MasterCard´s programs started in Asia, where the network still sponsors the annual two-month Great Singapore Sale. (There´s still time to book tickets - and apply for a new card - for this year´s affair, which continues through July 26.) That sale and other regional attractions generate a lot of travel - and lucrative cross-border shopping - from affluent women cardholders, according to Murphy.

When MasterCard expanded such programs to Europe, it tried "more of a mass-consumer segment approach, targeted with different features and benefits that are relevant in each market," he said. For example, in Germany, "the features and benefits that have been important are very much about data security - not so much travel, not so much spending-type benefits, but really `how do I know that my card is secure, that there will be a loss guarantee?´"

In France, some other cultural stereotypes proved to have a kernel of product application. MasterCard introduced "an insurance around lost or stolen handbags, and that has been attractive," Murphy said. "That´s not something that´s offered anywhere else. That´s where consumer research told us it was a concern for women, not for men - you could see why."

Even this female New Yorker, who owns nothing Louis Vuitton or Chanel but who knows the pain of replacing everything in a stolen handbag, has to admit that such insurance sounds pretty attractive.

Alas, such cards are not yet available in the United States. "We are looking at it," Murphy said last month. "In the U.S. this year we are looking more at the mass product, refreshing the overall World proposition. But a women´s card makes sense in the U.S. and we´ve got to find the right way to make it work."