Let’s take a look at what might be at the root of our apparent problem with prominent women in media – and society at large – holding and exercising power
There are three well-known and well-documented gendered issues hovering over the media industry:
Sexism in the workplace: Female journalists and reporters are, like women in almost every other sector, subjected to unwanted sexual attention, misconduct and assault by co-workers and superiors.
Lack of female representation in media content: On average globally, only 24% of news subjects – meaning the people who are interviewed or whom the news is about – are female.
Harassment of female hosts and reporters by readers/viewers/listeners: Women in public-facing roles within the media are being harassed both on- and offline by audience members.
These issues are often discussed separately as they emerge on the heels of the latest study, another #MeToo-wave, or one more famed media figure coming forward with her personal testimonial. This ensures that the discussions which follow then subsequently center around either workplace culture or journalistic methodology or the sacrifices that come with being a public figure nowadays.
But what if we instead view these issues as interrelated? As stemming from the same deep, underlying problem that has always existed? Namely, the objection we as a society seem to have with women holding and exercising power. Yes, we. You, me and everyone we know.
Defying the norm of who traditionally holds power is an act of power
In this context, power should be understood in a broad sense: It is powerful to be a part of the public sphere, and it is powerful to get to decide which conversations to take place in this public sphere. It is powerful to use your voice. Holding knowledge and expertise is holding power. Having a profession, income and independence is holding power.
Defying the norm of who traditionally holds power is an act of power as well. This means that whether you are a female reporter or host doing your job, a female expert contributing with knowledge and perspectives, or a female employee at a media company building your career – you are challenging our cultural norms for what women should do. You are an alternative to the deeply-rooted narrative about who gets to hold and exercise power in our society, causing a subconscious itch that is impossible to resist scratching.
For the vast majority of people, “scratching” is limited to e.g. using linguistic distinctions such as “female scientist/director/CEO/expert/…” instead of just “scientist/director/CEO/expert”. It’s calling the female editor-in-chief a “strong woman” – even though they’d never feel the need to qualify a male editor-in-chief as a “strong man”. It’s feeling more comfortable interrupting a woman than a man. It’s having a sense that there were an awful lot of women featured on tonight’s newscast – even though women actually made up less than 50% of the team. Or it’s finding [insert name of powerful woman here] just a little extra irritating – but without really being able to put a finger on exactly why.
For a minority of people, “scratching” means threatening a female subordinate, abusing power through sexual advances or assaults, or sending complaints and hate mails to female public figures.
Power has never been feminine
So why do we feel this way? Where does this itch come from? To understand the cognitive dissonance that we experience when facing a female figure in power (even in the broadest sense of the word), we have to acknowledge that our present is impacted by a history of thousands of years where women did not hold any kind of tangible power or public voice. Where women were denied access to any influential spheres in society, to knowledge or an education – to say nothing of a paid job. Until very recently, women’s space of agency was limited to the private sphere, the home. 100-150 years may sound like a lot, but it is in fact not enough for the idea of a woman as a naturally powerful person to be completely normalized among us.
We are, still, used to and most comfortable with power lying with men. This is embedded in all pillars on which our society rests, so it really is no wonder. This is also why a more or less subconscious bias against women in power not is a question of whether you are a good or a bad person. It’s about getting used to a fairly new idea of what a woman (also) is, and the fact that we have always been structurally, culturally and linguistically force-fed the opposite impression: that power is something masculine.
So what can be done about it? Well, first we must keep talking about and documenting it – the sexism in the media industry, the lack of female representation in media content and the harassment of female hosts and reporters. Then, we have to acknowledge that we are not in complete control of our preferences, so we set up obstacles for our own practice and habits, such as: expanding and guarding employee rights in the workplace, conducting transparent power analyses, working on our unconscious biases and making strategies for diversity and inclusion. And all along the way, we must keep reinforcing the importance of representation as we continue to push for equality.
About the author:
Marie Valentin Beck is a diversity strategist and advisor with a background in sociology based in Copenhagen. From this place, she reflects on what is happening in the intersection between sociology, diversity and identity politics.