The problem with praising exceptional women in business: Quartz

When women succeed in male-dominated fields, much of the attention they receive tends to revolve around the fact of their gender. Media profiles emphasize the glass-ceiling-shattering statistics of their subjects, whether it’s the first female billionaire to pledge to give away half of her wealth or the first female founder of cereal industries or denim Interviewers focus on questions about how women founders and executives achieved career success while raising families or dealing with issues like infertility and sexism.

On the one hand, it makes sense that so many public conversations about women leaders are gendered when there is still a dearth of female CEOs worldwide and startups founded by women in the US received only 2% of funding from venture capital by 2021. But a new report (pdf) from public relations firm Finsbury Glover Hering (FGH) highlights the ways in which praising women for succeeding against the odds can end up perpetuating the sexist status quo.

Although the report focused on German business leaders, its findings are relevant to all countries where gender inequality remains a reality.

Why focusing on gender can undermine women

The Finsbury report examined 600 recent interviews with German publications to analyze gender patterns in the media’s treatment of male and female executives, a term that encompasses founders, entrepreneurs and board members.

Among the report’s biggest points is that even seemingly complimentary remarks about how women are unique in their fields can have a negative impact. He draws attention to profiles that say women in construction are ‘exotic’, refers to former Siemens HR director Janina Kugel as a ‘pop star’ and crowns Merck CEO BelĂ©n Garijo, as the “first queen of the DAX”, the German stock market. index. “A title like this implies that they are and will remain exceptions,” the report explains. “After all, how many pop stars or queens are there in the world?”

Similarly, the report states that the media’s obsession with highlighting women who are the first to claim a particular achievement may end up inadvertently suggesting that it is their gender that makes them worthy of attention, not their achievements and business knowledge.

How the media covers women executives

The report’s findings highlight the unequal coverage of male and female executives in the media:

  • Only 13% of the 600 print media interviews in the last 30 months were with female executives
  • Almost a quarter of the interviews with women managers discussed their gender
  • Stories are twice as likely to discuss women’s physical appearance compared to men’s appearance
  • Women managers are six times more likely than men to be asked about their private lives, such as their childhood and families.

All this in line with the well-known phenomenon where high-achieving women have to navigate interviews that unexpectedly veer into discussions about their looks or their relationship status, and are prompted to talk about reconciliation of work and family life.

One in a million

Some women may choose to push back when interviews veer into such sexist territory. However, there are potential professional advantages in the media’s gender focus. The report notes that “female founders receive a lot of attention because of their special position, and this also opens up opportunities” for publicity. It is also true that some business women can be active to want to talk about the impact that gender has had on their lives and careers.

The problem lies in how public discourse can, often unintentionally, imply that gender is the most important or interesting factor in a woman’s achievements. An overemphasis on gender not only serves to minimize the individual achievements of women; it can also increase the likelihood that women will remain a rarity in fields or companies that congratulate themselves on having a few high-powered women and therefore don’t make more efforts at inclusion.

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