Being a woman in the media spotlight invites some unwelcome questions. So goes the life of any public figure. From Scarlett Johansson getting asked about her diet while Robert Downey Jr. is asked about the evolution of his character in “The Avengers,” to Serena Williams being told to smile after a grueling day of tennis, public figures who happen to be women are often asked questions that most reporters would never ask men.
These type of questions aren’t new. They’ve been around for years and are rooted in deeply held gender stereotypes. Views on traditionally feminine traits are evolving, but it’s slow progress. Many women, especially those who run for office, are often urged to be seen as likeable rather than competent, particularly by members of the media. However, is this because the voters already see women candidates as more emotional and believe that they should be more compassionate and less assertive? Or is it because the media calls these stereotypes into play when they report on a woman’s endeavor to get elected?
Disturbingly, new research suggests that the stereotypes perpetuated by the media can influence how voters feel about women candidates. In her study, Nicole Bauer found that support for female candidates “can be reduced if voters see campaign messages—in speeches, ads, or news reports—that describe the woman candidate as caring or compassionate,” even if voters had not attached a feminine gender stereotype to the candidate before.
However, the feminine gender stereotypes also cut in the opposite direction. “Likeability” is frequently debated, especially with candidate names like Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina. Both women are very accomplished by their own rights, but many cable news reporters like to remind viewers that both women come off as “shrill” or “aggressive.”
In fact, women seeking office still have to be seen as likeable in order to be viewed as qualified for office according to Adrienne Kimmell of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “If you aren’t seen as likable, then you won’t be seen as qualified and vice-versa. But for men, those two qualities aren’t linked at all.”
So how do you avoid perpetuating feminine stereotypes and thus gender bias in your reporting? As reported by the Columbia Journalism Review, the Women’s Media Center has some tips:
- Members of the media should be aware of sexist language and gender-based attacks, and make note of it for their audiences when candidate-to-candidate sexism appears;
- Awareness is the best tool for combating sexism. This means reporters should be aware of common sexism normalized by an unequal culture as well as of their own notions about gender, language, and image, as well as how others express these notions;
- Don’t blame the victim. When a female candidate says she’s being treated in a sexist manner, the most damaging response is a form of blaming the victim (i.e. “She’s playing the gender card”).