Yes you can do something about unfair media coverage of women: here’s the secret

Issue 144 — October 5, 2020

I’ve gotta tell you, I get really tired of people complaining to me about something they saw in the news coverage of women. Whether it’s criticizing or loving Kamala Harris’s Chucks or the tone and timbre of a female leader’s voice, and don’t get me started on Hillary Clinton’s ankles and yellow pantsuit, women in leadership roles are scrutinized and stereotyped much more often than men. That’s surely true.

Kamala Harris sporting her Chuck Taylors. Photograph from the Guardian: Charlie Neibergall

As BBC noted in one of the most pervasive examples, “[N]ot too long after being appointed General Motor’s chief executive in 2014, Mary Barra was asked in an interview whether she could be both a good mother and good boss and whether being a mother allowed her to give General Motors a softer image as it emerged from bankruptcy. One month later, when Mark Fields was appointed as the head of Ford, no journalist asked him whether his parenting skills would suffer as a result of his job.”

But don’t tell me to write a letter to the editor. Goodness knows I do that often enough. You have a voice and a mouse. Use them.

Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, former World Bank Regional Director, Africa and co-convenor, #bringbackourgirls, told several hundred members of the International Women’s Forum, professional women from around the world when we were meeting in Stockholm: “When you are as educated as women in this room, you are only voiceless by choice.”

Oby and I are both saying, you have the power to influence the representation of women, people of color, and any marginalized or underrepresented group. You have the power to set the record straight on issues that you think have been inaccurately reported too. You can do it on your own or better yet, by joining with some others to make your point.

And no, posting your outrage on Facebook or twitter doesn’t count, though it might make you feel good for a minute.

On the positive side of the media coverage, I thought that other than remarking in a celebratory way that Jane Fraser is a woman, most of the coverage of her being tapped to become CEO of Citicorp when the current CEO retires next February has been untarnished by commentary on her physical presence. Fraser herself referenced “lead like a woman” characteristics, that one might guess were in answer to a question about how she might lead differently from her predecessors, but she framed it all in a positive way and pivoted to what her business priorities will be. From Broadsheet:

“People do look for leadership at a time like this. Being a woman has real power and strength to it,” Fraser told Fortune’s Claire Zillman in May. “I can be much more vulnerable in certain areas, talking more about the human dimensions of this than some of my male colleagues feel comfortable [with], and I don’t feel that’s in any way soft or weaker.”

“In a statement Thursday, Fraser said that her priorities for Citi are to “invest in our infrastructure, risk management, and controls to ensure that we operate in a safe and sound manner and serve our clients and customers with excellence.”

That sounds pretty much what any incoming CEO would say and the news reports that used it should be commended. I’d say that is progress.

The media forms us as it informs us, so be aware of how you are being represented and don’t be afraid to say what you observe, good or bad, in the media you consume.

For more lively conversation about women and media, register here for Take The Lead Book Club October 8 at 7:30 pm eastern time. Kristin Grady Gilger, interim dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, will discuss her book There’s No Crying in Newsrooms.

I was recently asked to, and I did, sign onto a letter alerting Arizona media that women are watching their coverage of women candidates in this election year, that we have the women’s back and we will let members of the media know if they have stepped into sexist reporting. I wouldn’t ordinarily include the entire text but it’s really good and covers the waterfront. It could as easily be applied to women in business or any profession as it does to political reporting about women. Here goes:

“Recent history is replete with examples of sexist stereotypes and tropes seeping into news coverage that put political candidates who are women at a distinct disadvantage. We write to strongly encourage vigilance this election season about fair and equitable coverage of women running for office.

Arizona has a proud history of women candidates and office holders at every level. The 2020 election is no different with an impressive diverse roster of over 100 women running up and down the ballot. And, with women representing half of the state’s population, we feel obligated to raise your consciousness and to encourage decisions that reflect an intentional mindset to actively promote objective and unbiased news coverage.

Please, just deal with the substance of a campaign. Guard against descriptions of looks or ascribing certain traits. (“Ambitious” seems to mean something different for women than men.) Media coverage over the years has perpetuated impressions of women, and it is amplified with women of color.

With the historic appointment of Kamala Harris as the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, a group of prominent women shared their concerns and expectations with national media organizations about the media’s role in the scrutiny and coverage of women candidates, and the vice presidential candidate in particular.

We applaud the authors of the “We have Her Back” letter for highlighting examples of disparate treatment of women who are candidates for office. They include:

— Reporting on whether a woman is liked as though it is news when the “likeability” of men is never considered a legitimate news story.

— Reporting on relationships with partners, staff, colleagues and donors are characterized differently if the woman is not seen as subservient or supportive.

— Reporting, even as asides in a story, on a woman’s looks, weight, tone of voice, attractiveness and hair is sexist news coverage unless the same analysis is applied to every candidate.

— Reporting on questions of electability of women is, in itself, a perpetuation of a stereotype about the ability of women to lead.

— Reporting on doubts women may not be qualified leaders even when they have experience equal to or exceeding male leaders.

— Reporting on the heritage of women of color perpetuates a misunderstanding about who is legitimately American.

— Reporting on and using pictures of a woman’s, particularly a Black woman’s, show of anger at injustice or any other kind of passion in communication perpetuates racist tropes that suggest unfairly that women are too emotional or irrational in their leadership.

Please don’t mistake this for a request for special treatment. Women are not fragile. Candidates can hold their own in debate and before reporters. Rather, this is an opportunity for you to demonstrate thoughtfulness, fairness and equity in your campaign coverage, and to advance our civic health. You have the public’s trust. As voters seek to understand those who are seeking office, we hope you will use your influence wisely.”

Media reportage does create meaning about women, power, and leadership. And representation matters a great deal, in every medium.

The Women’s Media Center tracks many metrics concerning women’s leadership or lack of it in a wide range media. Among them, in the most recent report published in 2019, they found that editors of 135 of the most widely read newspapers are overwhelmingly white and male.

An example of the consequence: Soledad O’Brien said when I interviewed her for a Take The Lead event recently that a great deal of her energy and effort to combat racism had started when she was asked to host CNN’s series “Black in America.” In the newsroom that was similarly to newspapers primarily white and male, she noticed that individuals of color were consistently described and framed with a focus on their deficits whereas suburban white people were described by focusing first on their assets and agency.

The lens matters and the frame matters, and therefore it is important to have diverse lens on what story is told and through what frame.

Soledad O’Brien interviewed for Take The Lead.

It behooves us to seek out other vehicles that balance gender and racial lens. If you don’t already subscribe to the RaceAhead newsletter, consider doing so. Every week is full of McGirts’ brilliant writing, topics you don’t generally see in mainstream media through a racial justice lens, and she pulls no punches

Here’s another example from another medium. If you can see it you can be it.

New York City’s Central Park just got its first statues of women other than Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland. On Women’s Equality Day, August 26, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment of the US Constitution granting women the right to vote, a Women’s Rights statuary depicting prominent 19th Century women’s rights activists and suffragists Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony was unveiled. Anthony, who was probably the best known, was arrested and convicted of voting illegally in 1872. Stanton co-founded the American Equal Rights Association and pushed for women’s suffrage when even Anthony thought it was too radical an idea to be accepted by the public.

See it, be it. Loved seeing these children looking at the Women’s Rights Statue in New York’s Central Park. Note the statue has also become a shrine to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Truth, who was born enslaved in New York, says she “walked away” to freedom in 1826 and became a well-known abolitionist and women’s rights activist, as well as a Methodist minister. When the statue was first conceived, it was to be of Stanton and Anthony but after successful protests that the role of Black women in the suffrage movement had been ignored, Truth was added. The result is one of the most powerfully engaging statues in park and figures prominently on the iconic Poet’s Walk. I have walked by the statue several times now and each time it has been difficult to get an unimpeded photo because so many women, girls, and even some men were taking selfies in front of it. The last time I walked by it, the statue had become a shrine to the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, drawing a direct line to today’s women’s movement.

What can you learn from this to advance gender parity? What can you do to foster and champion gender and. racial parity and a “power to” culture in a meaningful way? Here are a few tips and questions to help:

  1. What media do you most often consume (watch, read, listen to)? Make a list and ask yourself whether you are by your actions supporting media that represents women accurately, all women not just women like you.
  2. For one week, every day pick out one example of media coverage that you think was fair and accurate about women, and one that was not. What are the characteristics of your media examples that caused you to categorize them as either biased or fair to women?
  3. And then ask yourself, what is one thing I can do to compliment the good journalism or call out the bad? If we all would do that on a regular basis, I guarantee we would see changes. Note, you can tweet them or email them. Their email addresses are often shown on their bios and they are almost all on twitter. Or/and write that letter-to-the-editor! It’s the most read section of most media entities.
  4. What is your own social media footprint? What can you do to deliver posts that consistently treat women fairly and call out those that don’t?
  5. What new awareness did you get from this exercise in regard to your own stereotypes and implicit biases or those you experience from others?
  6. How can greater awareness of the media narratives that influence you make you a better leader?

P.S. Here’s my podcast discussing some of these questions. Please share it and this article with anyone whom you think they might help. Listen, subscribe, and let me know how it goes for you. By the way, this is the last podcast of the current Power TO You Podcast season. We’ll be back in December.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

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Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.