The battle for gender equality marches on, played out in one of the most public spaces, headline news. And it’s not just about how much coverage women are receiving versus men—whether in politics or business or sports—it’s also about how the media portrays women in their roles.
Of course, companies should promote news as it happens. New products. Changes in leadership. Contributions to the community. But maybe, just maybe the narrative needs to change regarding the exotic existence of the female CEO.
Every industry needs more females in positions of leadership, whether it be the news media, public relations, government or Fortune 500. Maybe that is the real story. A press release promoting a female CEO alienates the woman to a position of gender, rather than leading with her talent or purpose. From the beginning, the heroine of the story becomes pigeonholed.
In a recent Google search for "first female CEO" I came across six stories published within a week that contained those keywords:
"Best Buy Introduces Corie Barry As The Company’s First Female CEO"
"One of America’s Most Storied Fashion Brands Just Got Its First-Ever Female CEO"
"Censky is the first woman to lead the museum in its 137-year history."
"Virgin Voyages Announces First Canadian Woman as Captain"
"On Jan. 1 (2020), Tamara Fischer will make history: She’ll become the first woman to head one of the self-storage industry’s publicly traded REITs."
National news, local news, trade journals—the news media is rife with the nomenclature of "first woman."
But when will the novelty wear off? Why do communicators find it necessary to position gender as the most important part of these announcements? If we continue to treat these identities as news, we may never get over the equality hump to where it becomes the norm.
Female Representation in the PR Industry
An overwhelming amount of women work in public relations. Women make up 60 to 80 percent of the industry, yet occupy just one in five senior positions. Mid-level women are the force behind the messaging that makes its way into the news media. And many women in senior-level positions agree that it’s not just about promoting gender, but a holistic view of leadership.
"We must not fall into the trap of viewing women, or any group of people, as monolithic," said Anitra Marsh, associate director, global communications, Procter & Gamble. "We come from different backgrounds and cultures and have various life experiences. Having that diversity of culture, experience, and background reflected among women within an organization is critical to reap the rewards of diversity."
Female Representation in the News Industry
So yes, it begins with the gatekeepers—communicators—but where do we go from there? Does representation get misinterpreted by the news media, where there is also gender disparity? A 2019 report released by Women’s Media Center found that women trail in newsroom positions throughout the industry, including print, broadcast and online.
According to the report, across all media platforms, men receive 63 percent of bylines and credits, while women receive only 37 percent.
When reading the news it occasionally seems to women (well, to me at least) that the world should be impressed that a woman could achieve such a feat, like a dog walking on its two hind legs. Women do actually have brains and capabilities. It’s not breaking news that women are expert multitaskers and communicators, offering diplomacy and patience in areas where they are lacking.
Reporters are not lone actors in this kind of erasure. Last month the Pew Research Center uncovered that men appear twice as often as women in news photos on Facebook. Pew noted that "Facebook remains a source of news for 43% of U.S. adults, as social media as a whole has outpaced print newspapers when it comes to where people often get their news." Images can make a greater impact on viewers than the text that blurs by upon scrolling.
A Continuing Campaign
Maybe the real stories should continue to cover the lack of diversity in industries, rather than just celebrating one-off wins for women. We never see announcements like "Man With GREEN EYES Becomes Next CEO of X Fortune 500 Company."
This issue will continue to be a priority as political coverage ramps up for the 2020 election, wherein a record number of women are running for president. Will the media focus on their gender or their platforms? (And I’m not talking about shoes.) Let’s hope for a holistic focus on what makes a great story, rather than relying on identity politics.