Women leaders: High peaks, low gullies

March 5, 2010

glenda_stoneGlenda Stone is an Australian businesswomen in the UK, CEO of Aurora and a commentator on economic gender issues. 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.–.-

In Australia there is a common expression of social phenomenon called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. It is a pejorative term that describes human behaviour of attacking, despising or attempting to cut down or criticise people of genuine merit because their achievements or talent distinguish them above their peers. Targets are often accomplished people with a public profile: business leaders, politicians, academics – and at times even celebrities and sporting personalities.

The media can be especially vicious in strategising, fuelling and orchestrating smear campaigns with the sole intention of defaming and questioning the character and ability of high-profile leaders.

So three questions arise: Do different countries differ in their appetite and media tolerance for Tall Poppy Syndrome? Has inaccurate, sensationalist, instant reporting in the media become a globally accepted normative standard? And are women even greater targets for negative media attention because of unfair, deeply ingrained societal gender bias?

The UK is one of the most competitive and intensive media consuming countries in the world. In fact, any country where the Murdoch empire towers, a full and crowded range of media exists ranging from the most unintelligent sensationalist reporting through to attempts of more fact based and balanced coverage.

Unlike France where newspapers like Le Monde present lengthy fact- based articles so that readers can consider multiple perspectives and make up their own mind, the UK resorts to six or seven word headlines and light sensationalist text designed to control the minds of the masses, often without them even having to read the article. There has been a significant dumbing down in reporting over the past decades and the masses are simply told unquestionably what to think and believe.

Leaders are constantly attacked and defamed, and a mindset of “if it is not negative it is not news” prevails. Some may argue that social media such as Twitter drive and thrive from this phenomenon, as does the all too familiar tit-for-tat political retaliation banter.

Frustrating as it is, there is no point fighting the media frenzy tsunami. The media is bigger than any one person, company, country or era. In our fast speed techno world, ideas and influence travel globally in milliseconds. Real-time instant reporting has become the new standard. Facts? Accuracy? Editorial approval? Once important, these are now largely irrelevant and have been acceptingly surpassed by an era of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Democracy, free speech, fearless libel, opinion, unquestioned perception, blogs – The internet enables anyone to report whenever, whatever, however they like.

Historically, the introduction of education and therefore writing was vehemently opposed by the holders of power on the grounds that it would detract from controlling the minds of the masses. The printing press and newspapers were also opposed as they provided various voices, facts and perspectives – a similar debate to the role of religion in controlling the masses. Realistically, rejecting the state of today’s media and global communication is pointless. Absurd as it all may sometimes seen, the media is what it is and will continue to evolve.

But for women, treatment in the media constantly moves between absence, objectification or harsh attack. The portrayal of women in the media is still a major challenge. Female business leaders and politicians are exceptional targets for defamation. The most common angle projected on women is one of ‘hypocrisy’ where facts are fabricated, success penalised, and women damned – and all so very often without question or challenge.

So equality and deep-rooted gender bias still has a very long way to go. Equal pay, boardroom representation, access to finance – the list goes on. Yet while perception will always be reality, the media is undoubtedly the strongest influence and determiner on the future directions of the gender agenda

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On International Women’s Day, the Medical Women’s International Association emphasizes that to create equitable access to health and health care that there are three parts to gender and health. They are the biological differences between women and men, the sociocultural aspects of society as to how they see the roles of women and men, and the power relations between women and men. MWIA strives to improve the health of all, while making society aware of these three aspects that are necessary to ensure that health care can be accessed by all.

Shelley Ross

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