Study Finding We Are Done with Gender Bias Omits Important Data

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“Good News for Hillary 2016: New Study Says Media Gender Bias Has Almost Disappeared”

…so reads The Grindstone headline to Ruth Graham’s latest article. Quoting research from Jennifer Lawless and Danny Hayes covering 4,748 newspaper articles in the 2010 congressional races, Ms. Graham finds much to celebrate. I am loathe to argue with her, since she was kind enough to interview me regarding this very topic this summer, yet there is evidence to dispute the study she cites, making the case that we are not done with sexism or misogyny in the media, politics or the public at large.

BRUSSELS, Dec. 5, 2012 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses a press conference after the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, capital of Belgium, Dec. 5, 2012. (Credit Image: © Ye Pingfan/Xinhua/

According to the researchers:

News coverage of women was just as common as coverage of men. And the content of campaign stories was nearly indistinguishable across candidate sex. The frequency with which reporters referred explicitly to candidates’ sex or gender – for instance, noting how they dressed or their family roles – was the same for men and women.

First, Graham acknowledges that Lawless’ and Hayes’ study covered only local newspaper media and not television – where cable in particular can be “harsher” on women. Second, there is a huge chasm between women running for Congress, which has become commonplace, and the treatment of a woman running to be Commander in Chief. Third, in the 2010 midterms, respected pollsters Kellyanne Conway and Celinda Lake found that even “mild sexism had a devastating effect on a woman’s ability to win an election.” They cited female candidates in 2010 referred to as diva, ice queen, mean girl, slut, and whore. Other researchers were quoted by respected author Erica Falk, noting that going forward, women politicians need to frame their candidacies as “normal” and to “avoid emotional expressions.” In the same period Lawless and Hayes discuss, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), referred to New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand as the Senate’s “hottest member” at an important public forum.

It doesn’t sound like we are done with sexism to me.

Lawless and Hayes report that bias in the general public has “dwindled drastically,” yet, this year, 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, a 2-time Olympic gold medalist and the first African-American to win the all-around gymnastics medal, was the target of a twitter-hate campaign about her hair that was so widespread, it was covered by CNN. Ms. Douglas’ mother even felt compelled to compose an article defending her daughter. Media covered 4-time Gold medalist Missy Franklin’s “big feet.” Further, big media typically pays a lot more attention to the “pretty” athletes whereas women considered less attractive can barely find sponsorship to compete, much less get endorsement deals. Ask Olympic sprinter Nolo Jones’ American competitors about that one.

Biased media treatment of female athletes in no different from that of politicians, with far too much focus on appearance; not enough on achievement.

Most damning is the 2012 Fourth Estate study that logged in 51,000 quotes in TV and print media where even in articles discussing women’s health issues, men were quoted by a ratio of five to one over women. No sexism in the media? On matters of economic and foreign policy, men are quoted over women in ratios of three or four to one. Men outnumber women columnists by two to one.

A colleague just shared an info graphic entitled “Equal Education, Unequal Pay” showing that men still make nearly 20% more than women across all industries, although women have the same education levels and typically graduate with higher GPAs than their male counterparts. What does this say about passage of the much touted 2009 Lily Ledbetter Act ending the pay gap? It did not. Women currently outnumber men in poverty three to two.

The manifestations of bias are many. There are myriad ways to communicate that a woman is of lesser value. I would argue that if we were truly done with media gender bias, the kinds of disparities mentioned here would be less likely to exist.

Lawless' and Hayes' study also does not address the fact that television and leading print media elect our presidents -- they drive home their narrative with each story they report. Sexism may be used not only for its own sake, but as an effective method to disqualify an otherwise credible female candidate. Sexism goes beyond nasty name calling or focus on wardrobe, but covers ridicule, and other games regarding the choice of unflattering photographs of a woman candidate, referred to as “visual vilification.” Remember Michelle Bachmann's Newsweek cover? A very attractive woman photographed to look cockeyed? The caption read "The Queen of Rage." Surely we can stick to the critiquing her on policy without conveying that she is a whack-job. That picture alone was enough to horrify anyone. FOX anchor Chris Wallace also asked Bachmann if she was "a flake." What man was asked that?

In the run up to 2012, there was enormous fear within the media that Sarah Palin would contest for the presidency. Every effort was made to discredit her – by poring through 24,000 pages of her personal emails when she was Governor – although no smoking gun was detected.


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