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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.