How not to write about female leaders

By Beata Rek, PhD student in Politics, @BeataRek (https://twitter.com/beatarek). You can find more about Beata here.


 

As Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton, as well as many other women, rise to the political top, it may be reasonable to theorise that the glass ceiling is no longer a barrier for women in politics. However, the situation of female politicians might not be quite as simple as it may seem at first sight. Indeed, although women could have smashed the glass ceiling into smithereens, it does not yet mean that all the issues which they face – for example media coverage – are over.

When analysing this year’s press coverage of the Conservative leadership election, at some point I observed a significant increase in the number of articles about female leaders from different parts of the globe. This was around the time when all male candidates were eliminated one by one, and the election turned into a two-woman race. However, what the media gave with one hand by praising female politicians for all their hard work and achievements, it took away with the other by referring to them as ‘cleaners’ who are there to pick up the pieces of their male predecessors. Moreover, the media undermined their authority by suggesting that women might have won their positions only as a result of political instability. An article in the Guardian suggesting that ‘all we need is just someone who will lead us out from the mess‘ and a piece in the Independent arguing that Theresa May “is criticised for being dull – but that’s exactly what Britain in turmoil needs” are just a few of many examples.

Even though the press give the impression of writing about female politicians in a positive light, in reality it also sends a veiled, negative message. First of all, by writing that women are cleaning the mess made by men, the media did not present women as an equal part of the political scene. Indeed, ‘othering’ women from male politicians has been previously described in the academic literature and examples of such practices include unnecessarily labelling their gender (and not doing so for males) or emphasising how ‘rare’ is a woman’s appointment for the particular office. Similarly, reducing the role of female politicians to fixing the damage done by men does not aid creating a gender-equal environment, and potentially limits their chances for being elected in the future as well as undermines their authority.

Second of all, while writing about May and Leadsom, the press had a tendency to mention that the election is taking place in the time of political crisis. One message from so-constructed statements is that women’s success might not be related to their abilities, but rather to unusual political circumstances. This might thwart their position as candidates who are able to win in every situation, while in the future, once the crisis is over, this could also pose a question whether a woman is still a good choice. Therefore, the media could devaluate the candidates, by linking their success with times of turmoil, rather than attributing it to their experience and potential ability to successfully run a country.

While in the past there have been more severe examples of gendered coverage, framing of females as ‘political cleaners’ is yet another confirmation that more changes in press attitudes towards women are required. It is a well-established fact that women are a part of politics for quite a while now, and thus it is shameful that in 2016 the media still relegate women to “postmodern Elektras in suits and rubber gloves” who are supposed to clean the mess caused by men.

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