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15 July, 2011 / Ash

Women who aspire to be leaders should avoid mainstream media

Is the mainstream media hindering the progress of women to leadership roles?

Whilst doing some research into gender bias, I found it interesting to watch Q & A’s episode on The Gender Divide. Joe Hockey started talking about Australia’s poor ranking in the OECD for promoting women to leadership roles, and went on to quote statistics:

“Look, when I first railed against this 10 years ago as minister for financial services, 8.4 per cent of board directorships were held by women. Today it is still 8.4 per cent for the overall number of directorships. It hasn’t moved.”

Later Craig Greenwood in Rockdale New South Wales asked Ms. Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac:

“Can Ms Kelly explain why she’s lost the only two female executives she inherited as Westpac’s CEO and why, despite positive discrimination, she hasn’t managed to find any women capable enough to sit on her executive committee?”

This got me wondering why nobody on the panel was bringing up the other side of the story – that many women don’t apply for leadership positions in the first place. This is due to a number of reasons, but probably the most significant is stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone is aware of negative stereotypes applied to their group, they tend to perform closer to what the stereotype would predict. For women, these negative stereotypes (in the context of leadership roles) include such traits as being irrational, emotional, indecisive and weak.

And here’s the rub: Mainstream media leverages stereotypes to sell products.

“Any expensive ad is as carefully built on the tested foundations of public stereotypes or sets of established attitudes, as any skyscraper is built on bedrock.”

– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Women's tabloids also leverage stereotypes

The mainstream media constantly bombards with advertisements that reinforce gender stereotypes – triggering stereotype threat in women.

In a 2005 study exploring stereotype threat on women’s leadership aspirations, it was found that exposure to stereotypic commercials undermined women’s aspirations on leadership tasks.

This finding could reasonably be extrapolated to mean that the act of watching TV or reading tabloid magazines may discourage women from seeking leadership roles.

It’s not known what the duration of the stereotype threat effect is, but this has potentially profound implications.

A follow up study in the same paper found that the effect could be mediated by adding the line:

“There is a great deal of controversy in psychology surrounding the issue of gender-based differences in leadership and problem-solving ability; however, our research has revealed absolutely no gender differences in either ability on this particular task.”

Unfortunately, after every Mr.Sheen or Meadow Lee ad, there isn’t such a disclaimer to create an identity safe environment and eliminate the stereotype threat. So I’d say that the best thing aspiring women leaders can do is avoid engaging with the mainstream media.

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