The Gender Bias Catch 22

The other day I was reading a BBC Business article about female leaders being disadvantaged by media bias and it reminded me of an interview with Dame Stella Rimington, the first female controller of MI5, for my book Fast Track to the Top.

When I met with Dame Stella I asked her about the highs and lows of her sojourn at the top of MI5. She confessed that a low point was being continuously harassed by the media to disclose where she bought her jackets. She was attempting to talk about the security of the nation whilst being jostled by reporters trying to read the label on the inside of her collar. “Why?” she asked me in consternation. Why indeed? I am surmising that if the label had been from a chain store then she might have been branded a cheapskate, and if Armani, profligate with her overuse of tax payers’ money.

This interview was conducted some 14 years ago and I bet at that time both Dame Stella and I would have looked forward to a decade’s time when the portrayal of women by the media would have gone through a transformation. Sadly, from this BBC article, and many other daily examples in the media, it hasn’t.

Journalists will claim that when reporting on public figures’ fashion they reflect the ‘public interest’. Are we the public really obsessed with the details of what our politicians or business leaders wear? I don’t think I’d be out of line to say that we want our leaders to dress appropriately and a bit of panache never goes amiss. The crucial part of this is knowing the ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘what’ is appropriate to report: when we need to know what a public figure is wearing and why we need to know. A good example, would be when Jeremy Corbyn had to be persuaded to wear a tie to the Cenotaph. We needed to know this as it begged the question, could such a leader be trusted on a global platform? But I don’t think we need to know the designer of the tie he eventually decided to don.

When Theresa May took over as PM, I’m sure lots of us saw the tongue in cheek photo story run by the Metro, dissecting what Theresa’s husband, Philip, wore on their way to number 10 after she was voted in. This story, which poked fun at the subject of female public figures’ fashion choices being constantly under scrutiny, received almost 100K shares – a sign that the ‘public’ may not after all subscribe to the type of news the journalists say we want.

Women add diversity of thought and contribution to the business and political arena. That is why the Davidson Report suggested a goal of 25% women on boards and, despite recent news stories lamenting the amount of female special advisors in government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged a 50% female board membership. So at least in government, it seems diversity is seen to be a ‘good thing’.

The BBC article I was reading, which started me on this journey, cites research conducted by the Kellogg Business School. This research claims that when a woman is appointed as a company’s CEO, the media coverage around this leads to a decline in share price. According to Smith, one of the authors, investors worry that other investors will worry about the female appointment and sell their stock. Smith explains that this is not sexism but ‘speculation’. Then there is the revelation from the same source that if there is no media coverage of a female CEO appointment, the share price increases. Whatever Smith claims, this is indeed blatant sexism on the part of these investors and the journalists who also had a part to play.

There are two sets of protagonists in this:

  1. The male investors – I’m pretty sure that they are men – who are worried about other men worrying about the appointment of a woman.
  2. The media for painting these female CEOs in a risky light, sufficient to worry investors.

Something has to give with this Catch 22 and the obvious target is our media. I don’t see the guys changing their attitudes any time soon.

I’d like to put it to the media right now – can we please have a code of conduct into how women are reported on in senior positions? Yes, talk about their dress if it is a source of scandal or will frighten the horses. But apart from that, lets hear about how they achieved their position based on ability, their contribution, diversity of thought and, most importantly, their accountability for bottom line performance before discussion on the merits of kitten heels.

Our business was founded over 30 years ago by Ros Taylor, one of the UK’s leading psychologists, authors and presenters. Using pioneering psychological techniques within the context of leadership coaching, RCT are fully ILM7 accredited and devise programmes, courses and workshops in the UK and overseas. Find out more about our Women As Leaders Programme here