Powerful women in the media’s focus. The representation of female and male leaders in politics, economy and academia.

Period April 2008 to December 2010
Conductor Prof. Dr. Jutta Röser
Dr. Kathrin Friederike Müller
Institution Department of Communication Science and Media Culture, Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Funding BMBF, ESF
Publication Lünenborg, Margreth/Röser, Jutta 2012: Ungleich mächtig - Das Gendering von Führungspersonen aus Politik, Wirtschaft und Wissenschaft in der Medienkommunikation. Bielefeld: transcipt.

The aim of the project was to analyze the mediated representation of powerful men and women in politics, economy and science and young adults’ adoption of such representations. In doing so, the media content as well as its adoption in the context of the (de-)construction of power and gender were focused. The study aimed at understanding the processes of gendering within professional success and status: Therefore, both male and female media users and media representations about leaders from both genders were examined. On both levels (adoption and representation), the findings show that the construction of gender is part of everyday media production and consumption, but it is always on the move: In the media discourse, moments of perpetuating the traditional concepts of masculinity were found as well as moments of modernizing concepts of femininity.

The project contains a quantitative content analysis (Prof. Dr. Jutta Röser and Dr. Kathrin Friederike Müller), a qualitative text analysis (Dr. Tanja Maier and Prof. Dr. Margreth Lüneborg), an iconographic analysis (Dr. Elke Grittmann), group discussions with higher and lower-educated young adults (Dr. Kathrin Friederike Müller) and surveys with journalists (Prof. Dr. Margreth Lüneborg and Dr. Tanja Maier). For the first time, production conditions, media representations and audience perceptions were examined and correlated in one project.

Regarding the textual and iconographic representations, the findings show that – altogether – the mediated construction of gender is changing. Nevertheless, the current representations of powerful men and women are switching between the affirmation of traditional constructions and the conception of new ones. The quantitative observation of 23 media reports detects that women in leading positions are underrepresented. Although chancellor Merkel is omnipresent in the media, it is still a fact that male politic leaders are mentioned four times more often than their female colleagues are. In economy and academia, the gender gap is even more obvious: If the media reports about leading persons from both fields, they hardly mention women but solely men. Albeit women are represented distinctly less in the media, they are not portrayed gender-stereotypical. The findings of the qualitative iconographic and text analyses show that mainly men in leading positions are portrayed with traditional male attributes, while women are represented in a less stereotypical, more diverse way. But the mere gender binary is not questioned overall: Via the attributes the portrayed persons are not only perceived as leaders, but clearly as a man or a woman as well.

The findings of the group discussions show that this ambivalence in the media representation of leaders is also taking place in their adoption. Both male and female respondents are aware of the relevance of the connection between power and masculinity in society. The group discussions especially focused on the obstacles that make it difficult for women to achieve a leading position. The respondents talked all the more positively about women who actually achieved a top position, like chancellor Merkel. Nevertheless, they are mistaken regarding their perception that powerful women are represented in a particular way in the media: Respondents believe that powerful women – like Merkel – must be omnipresent in the media because of their extraordinary status. One reason for this false conclusion is the peculiar attention respondents pay to media reports about such women: This attention originates in the contrast that one becomes aware of when top women instead of the mere number of their top male colleagues are represented. In addition to that, there is another reason for young women to pay closer attention to mediated representations about women in leading positions: They feel encouraged by them regarding the realization of their own career plans. Powerful women are acknowledged as proof that women can be successful in leading positions. They also offer orientation regarding the compatibility of career and family.

Within the group discussions, gender is constructed in traditional as well as in modern relations. Gender binary is always affirmed, but not regarding the competence for a leading position, but rather gender-specific attributes. These attributions portray men and women with different skills: The young adults argue that gender does not determine whether or not one can do something, but the way one does something. Gender is naturalized by the respondents when it comes to receiving media representations of powerful men and women in the media – and by that it is affirmed as a structural category.

The project was finished at the end of 2010.

Published in the series Cultural Media Studies: http://www.transcript-verlag.de/ts1692/ts1692.php

A CD with the findings plus impulses for media practice can be ordered via Dr. Kathrin Müller.