The last few years has seen a concerted effort to redress apparent gender imbalances in both industry and academia, whether it’s getting more women into the boardroom or younger women into STEM subjects and careers.
In true chicken and egg style, one factor commonly mentioned in both of these situations is the lack of visible role models to inspire the next generation. A recent study highlights why this paucity of female role models is so commonplace in the media.
Women in the spotlight
The study found that around 5 out of every six names in the media today are male, with this increasingly likely the higher the profile of the person being mentioned.
For their analysis, the researchers delved into 26 years of coverage from over 2,000 American publications. They uncovered a phenomenon that the authors dub the ‘paper ceiling’.
“The persistent gap in media coverage is due to a combination of the media’s preoccupation with leaders at the expense of everyone else and the well-known ‘glass ceiling’ that continues to block off working women’s access to leadership positions,” they write.
“The media focuses nearly exclusively on individuals at the top of occupational and social hierarchies, who are mostly men: CEOs, politicians, movie directors, and the like,” they continue. “And because these famous individuals account for most of those named in the news, there continues to be a big gap between the mentions of men and women in the overall media coverage.”
Inside the paper ceiling
Interestingly, this trend was found regardless of the general stance of the publication. For instance, liberal publications were just as likely to show bias as their more conservative peers.
Likewise, there was no noticeable improvement in publications where women were in senior editorial positions.
It has created what is essentially a two tier system. When the topic or individuals are low profile or obscure, then there is almost complete parity in mentions of men and women.
As soon as the fame levels are ramped up however, the gulf rapidly becomes vast, with men dominating the headlines, with this true whether the story is in the business, news or even entertainment sections.
Sadly, this trend has shown no signs of abating as media has migrated onto the web. The researchers included over five years of online newspaper coverage in their analysis, as well as a sample of Facebook data, with the same picture emerging.
“Regardless of media, as long as men continue to monopolize the highest levels of occupational and social hierarchies, we are not likely to see a major shift in media coverage,” the authors say. “The resulting dominance of men as subjects of public and dinner-table conversation may reinforce and normalize in the minds of audiences the notion that power and newsworthiness are something men have and, apparently, deserve.”
It’s a vicious circle that makes it even harder for women to break through.