We live in a visual world. But it’s an uneven existence. Society has progressed somewhat and the phrase looks aren’t everything is truer today than previously. More than that, inclusion, at least in some parts of the fashion industry, means messaging features examples of a wider range of body, racial and gender types.
Still, it’s difficult to name an A-list woman movie star who, in society’s eyes, is unattractive. Likewise, the ranks of plain-looking women reporters or anchors on television is small. Even thinner is the cadre of average-looking women reporting on TV about major sports.
On the other hand, while some male movie stars, TV reporters and sports announcers are handsome in society’s eyes, plenty are average-looking.
More than that, while society sometimes takes note of prominent males’ style and clothes, the hair, makeup and clothes of women movie stars, TV reporters and other prominent figures is a constant topic.
Seen More Than Heard
For example—during a classical music concert in Washington, D.C., almost nobody said a word about the male conductor’s attire. Yet chatter about a soprano soloist’s gown persisted even after the concert.
Certainly, communicators urge executives of all gender identities that appearing professional is important, particularly for on-camera opportunities. On the other hand, society’s expectations about appearances for women and men seem to differ.
One way this difference is manifested is women's behavior during work calls on Zoom and other video platforms. More women working from home than men forego video during business calls, a June 2021 Harris Poll/Fast Company survey of 2,026 U.S. adults found. Nearly 40 percent (39 percent) of women disable video because they’re unhappy with how they look at the time. Just 25 percent of men do so.
In addition, just more than half of women (55 percent) “always” or “sometimes” enable video. The rate for men is 65 percent.
Another gap: 85 percent of women who enable video prep their hair (74 percent of men do). Nearly the same percentage of women (80 percent) will change clothes (71 percent of men do). The 80-70 disparity continues: 83 percent of women clean the background for a video, while 77 percent of men do so.
Portrayal of Working Women
Another manifestation of this is how working women, particularly business leaders, are portrayed at the moment, says Gianna Biscontini, a behavior scientist. She contends women business leaders “once represented a necessary indignant rebellion away from patriarchal norms.” This woman, whose accomplishments were most important, “gave permission” for other women to be “authentic, powerful versions of themselves.”
Things have changed, Biscontini argues. Today’s woman business leader operates under a large microscope with a strong visual lens. Yes, accomplishments are important. Yet the woman who once needed to be everything now also requires “a giant coffee cup,” a great fashion sense, a well-sculpted figure and “self-care beauty products.”
She adds, “It was as if the rigorous leadership or academic efforts that required years of blood, sweat and tears could now only be recognized through a dope social media filter.” The “archaic, tired narrative that rewards women” for what they look like takes away from their more substantive accomplishments, Biscontini says.
Moreover, “we’re adding to women’s plate” when we insist they’re incomplete if they don’t also raise children, do housework and look like “a Kardashian.” This adds “extra burdens and more noise women have to deal with…and it drags them down,” she says.
Fortunately, communicators can help society move away from these antiquated tropes, Biscontini believes. Indeed, she says PR pros have “the” most important “role” in the effort. The words communicators use in verbal and written communication can overturn certain modes of thinking about women and other groups, she says. “Our verbal behavior is very important” in the way people think, she says. “This comes up in PR, entertainment and media.”
Her suggestions for communicators include:
Remove qualifiers: Avoid using terms like “female CEO, Black CEO, Latina CEO or gay CEO,” she says. These qualifiers “perpetuate the notion that anything other than a white, male CEO is an aberration or other.”
Take a beat: A key to prompting change, she says, is “being intentional and mindful” about word choices in messages. In addition, she urges communicators “slow down” when crafting messages. "It's emotional regulation...be more careful with words." Take "a minute or two" and get to "a more logical, intentional space."
However, she acknowledges how contrary this is in a go-go profession that sometimes rewards "the cheap dopamine spike."
Your mission: And make your communication personal. As you craft a message, think “how can I contribute” to a more realistic way of viewing women? Since communicators "speak to the general population," they have “a lot of power” to effect change, she says. On the other hand, Biscontini admits, such change won't happen quickly.
Create a Real Image of Women: For the most part, the visual of a skinny, airbrushed woman is over, Biscontini says. As such, communicators now should highlight women’s brains, achievements and character. “Skip the temptation to make it pretty” and treat women as thinkers and creators, instead of “as individuals who were born to be seen.”
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein