Hair, Hemlines and Husbands

When women are in, or run for, senior leadership positions they are often hampered by negative media treatment. Evidence shows the press to be more interested in their appearance or who they are married to, rather than their leadership capabilities and accomplishments.

In her autobiography, Carly Fiorina (CEO Hewlett Packard 1999 – 2005), said:

“When I finally reached the top, after striving my entire career to be judged by results and accomplishments, the coverage of my gender, my appearance and the perceptions of my personality would vastly outweigh anything else… It is undeniable that the words spoken and written about me made my life and my job infinitely more difficult.”

In her 2008 bid for the United States Democratic presidential nomination, Hilary Clinton faced very different media treatment from Barack Obama, her male Democratic rival. Reports claimed that she was only there because of her husband, that she was inauthentic and manipulative when she nearly cried in New Hampshire, and she was trying too hard to be the smartest girl in the room when she demonstrated her extensive grasp of issues.

In 1998 The White House Project, a U.S., nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization, to advance women’s leadership up to the U.S. Presidency, was so concerned by press obsession with the personal aspects of women, they conducted a media study of women running for governor or attorney general in five U.S. States. The results came to be known as the “hair, hemlines, and husbands” research. When they analyzed press clips from six campaigns (311 newspaper stories, including 891 candidate quotes) they found that:

  • Journalists were more likely to focus on the personal characteristics of female candidates.
  • Women journalists reported on personal aspects for both women and men.
  • Male journalists more frequently covered the age and marital and family status (most significantly the presence or absence of children) of female candidates.
  • Reporters were more likely to highlight male candidates’ positions and records on the issues and were more likely to quote male candidates’ reasoning behind their claims.

Intentional or otherwise, media coverage of female leaders often erodes their authority and credibility by focusing on aspects superficial to the key issues. If we want the benefits of more women leaders in government and organizations it’s time to expose the insidious influence of this type of media coverage.

And so when you next see a female leader get the hair, hemlines and husband treatment, notice your own reaction – do you collude by joining the attack? Or do you expose it for what it is – biased media coverage that makes it even harder for women to lead from the top.


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