When women succeed in male-dominated fields, most of the attention they receive tends to revolve around the fact of their gender. Media profiles highlight their subjects’ glass-ceiling-shattering stats, whether they’re the first female billionaire to pledge half their fortune or the first female founder in the cereal or denim industry. Interviewers focus on questions about how female founders and executives achieved professional success while raising families or dealing with issues such as infertility and sexism.
On the one hand, it makes sense that so much of the public conversation about women leaders is gendered when there is still a dearth of female CEOs worldwide and startups founded by women in the US have received only 2% of equity funding entrepreneur in 2021. But a new report (pdf) from public relations firm Finsbury Glover Hering (FGH) highlights the ways in which praising women for succeeding against the odds could end up perpetuating the sexist status quo.
Although the report focused on German business leaders, its findings are relevant to all countries where gender inequality remains a reality.
Why focusing on gender can harm women
The Finsbury report looked at 600 recent interviews across German publications to analyze gender patterns in how the media treats male and female executives, a term that includes founders, entrepreneurs and board members.
Among the most important points of the report is that even seemingly salutary observations about how women are unique in their fields can have a negative impact. She draws attention to profiles that call women in construction “exotic”, refer to former Siemens HR chief Janina Kugel as a “pop star” and crown Merck CEO Belén Garijo the “first DAX queen” , Germany’s stock market. index. “A title like this implies that they are and will remain exceptions,” the report explains. “After all, how many pop stars or queens are there in the world?”
Similarly, the report claims that the media’s obsession with highlighting women who are the first to claim a particular achievement can inadvertently end up suggesting that it is their gender that makes them worthy of attention, not their achievements. their and business knowledge.
How the media covers women leaders
The report’s findings underscore the biased coverage of male and female executives in the media:
- Only 13% of 600 print media interviews over the past 30 months were with female executives
- Nearly a quarter of the interviews with female managers discussed their gender
- Stories are twice as likely to discuss women’s physical appearance compared to men’s
- Female managers are six times more likely than males to be asked about their private lives, such as their childhoods and families.
All of this is consistent with the well-known phenomenon in which high-achieving women must navigate interviews that suddenly shift to discussions about their appearance or relationship status and are prompted to discuss work-life balance.
One in a million
Some women may choose to withdraw when interviews veer into such sexist territory. However, there are potential professional advantages to the media’s focus on gender. The report states that “female founders receive a lot of attention because of their special position, and this also opens up opportunities” for publicity. It is also true that some women in business can be active they want to discuss the impact gender has had on their lives and professional trajectories.
The problem lies in the way public discourse can, often inadvertently, imply that gender is the most important or interesting factor in a woman’s achievements. An overemphasis on gender does not only serve to minimize the individual achievements of women; it can also make it more likely that women will remain a rarity in fields or companies that congratulate themselves for having a few high-powered women in place and thus make no further efforts for inclusion.