Woman on top?

Woman on top?

reality check

Powerful Cherry Jones, playing Alllison Taylor, US president, on ‘24’.

If one were to switch on their TV and watch a few prime-time dramas, one would surely come across powerful mature women everywhere. They are surgeons on Grey’s Anatomy, district attorneys on Law and Order, and high-powered cops, lawyers and politicians in many others. Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer anchor the newscast, often spotlighting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's state visits. Television has even seen female presidents of the United States — Cherry Jones on 24 and Geena Davis on the short-lived Commander-in-Chief — something yet to be achieved in reality .

Isn’t that just so empowering? No, says Susan J Douglas in her book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done. According to Douglas, TV is such a powerful medium that it can shape people’s real world views, creating the false impression of equality. When that happens, the door is open to more sexism.

She elaborates that the implication of TV’s women taking charge is that sexism is dead. Hence, it’s fair to caricature and lampoon women as shrews and bimbos in fares such as The Real Housewives and in dating shows, where women viciously vie for the attention of the male contestant.

Douglas coined the term ‘enlightened sexism’ when she began noticing a wedge between programming geared towards her cohort as opposed to those directed towards her students and daughter. On the one hand, women were shown to be highly successful and ambitious. On the other, particularly in reality TV, there were young women picturised as “shallow, materialistic, obsessed with guys they barely knew, and involved in cat fights.”

As per one account, women had “made it”. In another, that very idea was being exploited to put women back in their place. Neither version reflected what Douglas saw as women’s actual lives, where inequalities are reflected in everything from the workplace to impossible beauty standards.

Douglas joins other authors of recent books — including Barbara Berg (Sexism in America) and Jessica Valenti (The Purity Myth) — which focus on the continuation of sexism despite the breaking of some major barriers.

The author argues that young women live in a ‘girl power’ bubble, where progressive policies in school and an upbeat youth culture shield them from the realities awaiting them in a workplace where their salaries falter and subtle sexism abounds. At this moment, she says, young women may experience an ‘aha’ moment.


Three writers at Newsweek have detailed such a moment in a cover story titled ‘Sexism at Work: Young Women, Newsweek, and Gender.’ The piece cited Douglas and Berg, among other writers, who helped confirm the trend they had diagnosed. The writers thought their employer had not entirely eliminated sex discrimination from the workplace, but at the same time they found themselves refraining from diagnosing the problem outright.

“This wasn’t something any of us noticed in school because women were excelling so much and we were surrounded by female educators,” says Jessica Bennett, 28, Newsweek senior writer. Bennett was one of the authors of the cover story. “It wasn’t until they set foot in the work force” that they caught on to the fact that something was amiss.

Eventually, after reading about a landmark Newsweek sex discrimination lawsuit in the 1970s, they decided to go public about their feelings, with their editors’ consent. Since then, the writers say they’ve been getting responses from women across all careers, from classrooms to courtrooms to construction sites. “Most of what we’re hearing has been people telling us it resonates for them,” says Jesse Ellison, 31, Newsweek assistant editor and another author of the story.

National Public Radio (NPR) ombudsman Alicia C Shepard shared similar
findings about NPR in a piece last year, entitled, ‘Where are the Women?’ In it she wrote that though NPR has been an industry leader in staffing, with a nearly 50-50 balance of female and male correspondents and hosts, women are the minority of commentators and news sources (26 per cent). “NPR needs to try harder to find more female sources and commentators,” Shepard wrote.

Douglas hopes those ‘aha’ moments reflected by the Newsweek cover story and NPR piece will become more frequent and that young women, whether they label themselves feminist or not, will resist negative media depictions and address workplace issues such as child care and maternity leave.

“We have the worst public policies in the western industrialised world for women, children and families,” she says, speaking of subsidised day care and mandatory parental leave. “It’s just pretty scandalous. If more and more young women knew this, they would get active.”

Two studies by the women’s business advocacy group, Catalyst, Inc., based out of New York, bolster the premise that real women still face a battle for equity.

An article titled ‘Pipeline’s Broken Promises’ — also cited by the Newsweek authors — finds that even women with MBAs, CEO-level ambitions or even those without family obligations face routine salary discrepancies. According to the study, women make $4,600 less than men on an average, after receiving the same degree. The study surveyed over 4,000 male and female graduates of full-time MBA programmes.

Women perched at the top are often precariously balanced according to
Catalyst’s other recent study, ‘Opportunity or Setback’, something TV shows don’t often show. The study reports that since the beginning of the current economic downturn, top female executives were more than three times as likely to have lost their jobs because of company downsizing or closure than their male peers: 19 per cent of women in this category versus six per cent of men!