Pop culture and media messages keep women down

By Sharon Mavin
February 25, 2010

mavin- Professor Sharon Mavin is Associate Dean (Research) at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.--

International Women’s Day remains an important reminder of disadvantaged women globally, as well as a marker of women’s progress in society. IWD is an opportunity to reflect on changes still to come and the need for continued activism in representing the interests of women around the world.

Further developments in relation to gender based inequalities and positive change to women’s status will come, in part, by acceptance of women as leaders – women leaders with the power to effect change in all societies. However, as long as the universal under-representation of women in government, business and policy making bodies remains, those developments will be hampered.

Yes, there are small, yet growing women in the parliaments of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon; Muslim women are achieving positions of heads of state in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh; in South Africa women are increasing their share of votes. Yet in America, where women make up more than half the population, they hold only 17 percent of congressional seats, seven of the 50 governorships and have yet to achieve the key leadership position of president.  As the British Member of Parliament Angela Eagle has noted, the higher up the ladder in business and politics, the fewer women there are.

The sad fact is there has been little movement in gender-based stereotypes of leader behaviours, so that  it is expected and appropriate for a man to be ambitious, competitive, forceful, controlled, objective, determined, instrumental and tough – all of which are perceived as ‘effective’ leader behaviours. Yet when a woman demonstrates herself to be an effective leader in accordance with this male stereotype, she causes a ‘jolt of assumptions’ – which reverberates with negative perceptions of and behaviours towards her. Women leaders who don’t stick to their own traditional gender stereotype of behaving in ways that are helpful, kind, empathetic, interpersonally sensitive – in short, those behaviours traditionally considered feminine – are perceived as ‘more male than the men,’ the ‘only bra in the room,’ battle-axes, bitches . Such women are highly visible and scrutinised.

In the Western world particularly, popular culture and the media play a strong role in constructing women leaders as unfit for, and out of place in, positions of power. Media messages doubt women’s ability to take on such responsibility and reinforce traditional gender stereotypes of women as non-leaders, men as leaders. Moreover, women face a double bind in that stereotyped ‘feminine behaviours’ or non-leadership behaviours are not yet valued in senior leader positions – despite the rise in recent years of relational values and Emotional Intelligence in connection with leadership.  Masculine leader behaviours are still the expected norm at the top of organisational and societal hierarchies. The upshot, then, is ‘feminine’ leader behaviours won’t get women to the top table, yet if women leaders are too masculine then they are vilified for not being ‘feminine enough’!

When it comes to what’s acceptable in business and politics, people today are far more influenced by popular culture and the media than by reading business literature.  How the popular media reinforce traditional stereotypes is evident in their treatment of women political leaders, whether it’s Hillary Clinton in the US (too masculine and not feminine enough until she cried on the campaign trail) or, in the UK, Harriet Harman (a ‘scary feminist’ who only cares about women’s issues and surrounds herself with other women MPs) or Caroline Flint (too attractive to be taken seriously).

Women leaders fare no better when depicted on screen. Take, for example, the bestselling book and Hollywood film of The Devil Wears Prada, which constructs the glossy women’s magazine editor and leader of a major organisation as the Queen of Queen Bees, more male than the men and a complete bitch to other women. The message here is clear – ‘look what you’ll turn into if you want to lead a major corporation’ ­– and reinforces why it’s better for women to stay away from positions of power. In a nutshell, finding love requires sticking to the gender stereotype.

The hugely popular TV series The Apprentice constructs women similarly, with the media scrutinising women contestants primarily around their femininity, relationships and attractiveness rather than their business or leadership capabilities. Similarly, the American TV series Friends also evaluates the women characters against gender stereotypes, with Monica, ‘the competitive one’ (a masculine gender stereotype), constructed as hyper.  There remains societal discomfort with women who display masculine behaviours associated with ‘effective leadership.’ Competitive women challenge the gender stereotype of how they are ‘expected’ to behave. This message is reinforced in the popular media where competitive women are almost always portrayed as mean at worst or, at best, a little crazy.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we must address gender inequalities and increase women’s chances of gaining global representation in positions of power, and we can challenge media messaging about women’s unsuitability for leader roles.  My research exploring the experiences of women in senior leader roles highlights how, in reality, there are many women who are as comfortable with their ‘natural’ masculinities as their femininities, and others who can adapt within a ‘masculine’ context. Today, with more women in middle management positions than ever before, we have a pipeline of women who are motivated and competent for leadership positions – the challenge now is how to fracture traditional gender stereotypes and message positively to enable women to be accepted as powerful leaders, and for it to be natural and ‘every day’, for women to hold powerful positions in society.


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