3. Unequal Portrayals

We gender stereotype in the way we portray women, including the language and images we choose. 

The roles we emphasise: We tend to emphasise women in ‘traditional’ roles over their achievements. We do this by referring to women as wives, mothers or girlfriends, rather than CEOs, politicians, lawyers or activists in their own right. We frequently refer to a woman as a ‘working mum’ if she works and has children. We never describe a man this way.

The language we use: One of the subtlest and potentially most damaging forms of sexism is the omission of women in references that are meant to describe everyone. For example: mankind. We also tend to ascribe gender to job titles e.g. chairman or chairwoman; policeman or policewoman. We perpetuate stereotypes by adding a gender to neutral job titles, such as ‘male nurse’ or ‘lady lawyer’.

The qualities and characteristics we highlight: We tend to portray women as timid, weak, emotional, hysterical, or victims rather than confident, strong, or compassionate. We focus a lot on their age, looks and clothes. When they are successful, we describe the characteristics that make them successful in negative ways. For example: instead of being described as authoritative like men, women are bossy; instead of having booming or commanding voices, they are shrill or abrasive.

The unequal references we make: In the media we do not treat women and men equally. We do this by:

  • Referring to men by mental aptitude or profession, but women by their physical attributes or role in the home.
  • Specifying a woman’s by age, but not a man’s.
  • Negatively stereotyping women’s characteristics, while positively stereotyping men’s characteristics: timid vs. outgoing, emotional vs. sensitive, weak vs. strong, hysterical vs. collected, middle-aged vs. silver fox, opinionated vs. knowledgeable, hormonal vs. angry.
  • Diminishing a woman to her relationship with a man by referring to her as his wife, girlfriend or daughter rather than a person with accomplishments in her own right. We also use courtesy titles that label women according to their relationship with a man/their marital status. Miss and Mrs define marital status, whereas Mr does not.
  • Referring to a woman’s family commitments. Women with children are ‘working mums’ and they are often questioned about their ability to hold down a job and have a family. Men are neither referred to as ‘working dads’ nor questioned about their ability to have a job and be a parent. We should use ‘parent’ instead of mother.
  • Focusing on a woman’s physical appearance, such as what she is wearing, while focusing on a man’s accomplishments. 

The images we use: In the same way that we make unequal references to women and men, we also portray them unequally in visual content. We use visual content of women that tends to focus or zoom in on women’s physical attributes and flaws. We use images of men in suits and women in bikinis. We use images of women politicians with glaring and cold stares, but men politicians smiling and approachable. We also have a habit of showcasing women on front pages, using visual content that has limited relevance to the articles themselves, in order to sell papers.

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