Wednesday, October 22, 2014
5

The Girl Can’t Help It

NEW YORK – When Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors in early December – the first woman to head a major American automaker – it seemed to many to be a milestone in women’s struggle for equal rights and opportunities. But, in a climate in which, as Catalyst, the feminist glass-ceiling watchdog, points out, only 4.2% of US Fortune 500 CEOs are women, is Barra’s promotion really a victory?

One way to answer that question is to consider who is doing the judging. In the United States, by one count, two-thirds of professional journalists are men, and men account for almost 90% of bylines in economics and business reporting in traditional media. In fact, the reflexive worldview of male-dominated business-news coverage invalidates all talk of a victory, whether for Barra or for the rest of us – including impressionable 15-year-old girls seeking role models and a message of empowerment.

Feminist analysts of language and media in the 1970’s, notably the critic Dale Spender, examined how language is used to deny women credit, power, and agency when their successes are noted. That critique remains valid today.

Many news stories about female CEOs and other high-achieving women are coded with a set of reliable clichés: they lucked into their new roles (and thus do not deserve them), inherited them from male relatives or spouses (and thus do not really hold the reins of power), or will not be there for long. If all else fails, coverage concentrates so narrowly on gender that a woman’s very leadership is weakened.

These clichés not only undermine successful women’s reputations; in the case of CEOs, they also reduce their value to their companies. And all of these clichés were reproduced in the coverage of Barra’s appointment at GM.

For example, CNN covered the story by referring to Barra’s “knack for climbing the corporate ladder” – a phrase with some suggestive undertones, and one that would never be used with a man at the top, for whom, presumably, hard work, talent, ambition, and dedication constitute more than a “knack.” It concluded by suggesting that Barra will have succeeded when people no longer call her “car girl” but “boss” – though the report offers no evidence that anyone is in fact calling Barra “car girl” rather than “boss.”

Likewise, the New York Times led with Barra’s father, and its headline suggested that she was “born to” her role, as if ambition and hard work had nothing to do with her ascent. It notes the car her husband drives and describes her as “soft-spoken.” And it includes an excruciating quote from her predecessor, Daniel F. Akerson: “Mary was picked for her talent, not her gender.” Promoting Barra, he goes on to say, “was almost like watching your daughter graduate from college.”

It is difficult to imagine a black male middle-aged CEO (Barra is 51) being introduced to reporters with the assurance that “he was not picked for his race.” And it is difficult to imagine his white colleague telling the national press that watching this 51-year-old man lead is like watching a 22-year-old “son” receive his BA.

Then there is the “Potemkin CEO” approach, which implicitly assumes that powerful men would never really choose a woman to lead an important institution. According to this cliché, Barra’s promotion must be a public-relations ploy, with men retaining the real power behind the façade. So we get this headline from Fortune magazine: “Is GM’s Board Setting up Mary Barra to Fail as New CEO?” The article goes on to explain that being surrounded by male rivals for her job may fatally weaken Barra, as if male CEOs were not also surrounded by would-be rivals.

Perhaps that is because she really is just a lady first, not a manager. An interview in the New York Times’ business section manages to focus the entire discussion on how things have changed for women at GM, rather than on what Barra intends to change at GM as CEO, or even on how things have changed in the car industry – surely an important question. The interviewer even asks at the end whether her husband is a GM employee.

With coverage like this, news becomes more than news; it becomes a real-world outcome that negatively affects a company’s bottom-line. Why would a major corporation – especially one like GM, which suffered a serious crisis that led to a massive government bailout in 2008 – risk appointing leaders, no matter how talented, who are bound to generate devaluing news coverage such as this?

I cannot fathom why serious journalists commit such egregious breaches of basic professional norms of fairness and impartiality. When they do, they are performing the role of guard dogs of an endangered patriarchy, defending – and thus strengthening – the glass ceiling.

Read more from "Unequal at Any Speed?"

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  1. CommentedKir Komrik

    Thank you for your contrarian world view - it is enjoyed and valued,

    Like fire and ice I agree with this author something like 1/2 the time. Some of the articles are just brilliant. Didn't know a hoot about Angelina Jolie but loved that post.

    Now the author writes this. My wife keeps telling me I'm a feminist but this is the nagging reminder than I'm not. Men die in the workplace at much higher rates than women, men work the nastiest jobs, men are subject to the draft and can be killed by their own government. Women are impossible to fire and everyone has to dance around them at work.

    Men are, surprise, just as likely to be victims of domestic abuse as women. Read that again. In fact, in many respects, women are _more_ violent than men. Surprising? Of course, because the n'th wave feminists are talking about that stuff. No, They're cooking the books on these numbers with bogus methodology.

    I find it absolutely stunning that the author used the word "agency". For it is hypoagency that women use to work their magic. You should read the story of the draft horse and the princess to understand that one. It's on ... youtube.

    On the other hand, women are not properly compensated for in their role in child rearing and time off from work as a result even though their male co-workers are parents also.

    More than 4 times as many men are homeless yet homeless shelters cater to women and outright refuse men. Almost all child custody goes to women in totally lopsided percentages like 80 or 90. Women get to choose whether they will have a child _after_ conception when men do not.

    I'd rather cast my lot with the egalitarian movement instead of feminism and I think this kind of talk is going to turn on feminism generally over the next several years ... listen to me now, hear me later. When we take away the bs it comes down to role rights; that's what matters. Men, women, youth and everyone else should have equal role rights and that is what the extremes in these debate have been missing for decades now, imo.

    Boys are _at least_ as likely to be subject to sexual abuse as girls. Yep, that's right. We've got a lot of freaks out there ... and some of them are female.
    Language is not used to do anything to women but artificially inflate their import and value in society in the popular press and entertainment world. Men are boobs and idiots and women are always the heroines saving everyone. Same plot, same story, same nonsense.

    I hate taking this view as I like this poster, but come on .... You can call it a patriarchal system adversely affecting all of us, but please, acknowledge that crap happens to everybody.
    - kk

  2. CommentedEdward Ponderer

    As few of anybody can realistically expect to join the club of CEOs on Mt. Olympus, where the girl "can really help it," is to champion the call for reasonable salaries for CEOs, for the end of needless wasteful product not sold to customers, but to their subconscious minds. Oh the list goes on--right into companies that will be true mutually responsible partners with customers, and most importantly, their employees. [Employees now under surveillance like inmates, manipulated into "voluntary" free overtime to accomplish "what is expected during their regular hours,"and exploited to every edge-of-the-legal manner possible.]

    Such a CEO would be a shining glory to the women's movement--reward in social recognition of far more value to the soul then squeezing out new baubles to add to the mansions decor.

    But as it stands now Ms. Wolf, it is an honor for women that they bear minimal responsibility for the bare-knuckle ego dressed up as the socially-responsible sophisticate that is the leadership of corporate America. Take pride that it is the Prince of Darkness who is a gentleman--not the Princess of Darkness playing the lady.

  3. CommentedDaryl stevens

    It is time for the luxury of dissonance related to overly classist and group based diversions of our collective, impersonal energies are set aside for the common benefit. Although some individuals and organizations continue to make considerable amount of money or careers from progressing these notions in advanced societies, it shows how distant these intellectual purveyors of far too much common drivel aree from the structural challenges that we are collectively needing to address. there is much room for advances in the developing world to advance as is exhibted by the public outcry against rape in India, the recent anti-gay legislation there as well, etc....

    While we widdle away time and precious energy on the pecuniary interests of small special interest groups, or discuss as if mattered, whether homosexuals can get "married" there are far more real problems to face than merely the focused interests of Women, Homosexuals, Minority Groups, the Disabled, etc..... This is written by a former social worker, who served one of these groups. the fact is, and Hillary is right, it takes a village. So, let us stop pretending that the baker is keeping down the chef, and that the Chef is opposed to the gardener, and that the Gardener is owed redress from the Seed Salesman, and that Seed Salesman is juxtaposed to the tractor salesman. Let us just grow as a group, rather than continue a ship of fools, and carnival of clowns, as the tubs begin to crack a bit. Enough is enough.

    I am amazed at how little many know of conditions inthe real world. Has any of these policy elites spent time away from the 4 seasons when they were in a developing world country. Does any of them consider how progressing their careers in this divisive veins, might make them powerful and rich, but at this stage in our advancement, in the developed world, is largely counter-productive. Rather than progress division, use your intellectual power, to bring about cooperation. We are tired of Hollywood, Maddison Avenue, K Street, the ABA and the AMA. Your time grows short. Transition to something more useful.

  4. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    The idea that the equality of women in the ruling class helps is dangerous, the problem is the existence of a ruling class, not the participation of women. The notion of "equal rights" is diverted and distorted. What matters is the income of female workforce, not their participation in the vanguard of capitalist extortion.

      CommentedJames Goodman

      You may find a glass ceiling in big business is affected by (this will sound incredibly sexist) the feminization of government in a plutocracy. Think about it, but please be objective. To enforce the rules fairly and equitably (eg. EEO for men and women, property rights etc) you need to be hard but fair to level the playing field. That means being tough enough to manage the big dogs too. In a plutocracy, you will see government taking on more of a feminine role with respect to needs and wants of players with the most wealth and status.

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