Media representation causes challenges for female politicians

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson spoke at a press conference in April 2021 where she and Gov. Spencer Cox announced the launch of Henderson’s returnship initiative to expand workforce opportunities in Utah. (Utah State Office of the Governor)

New research by the Utah Women and Leadership Project shows women are disadvantaged in Utah’s political arena because of their media representation.

The study analyzed media coverage of female candidates in political campaigns from 1995 to 2020 from a random sampling of Utah’s four major newspapers — the Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Standard Examiner and the Daily Herald.

Data was collected for number of mentions on these topics: candidate background, mention of gender, horse-race coverage/viability, general tone (positive and negative), leadership traits, feminine vs masculine issues and traits, family life, physical appearance, personality traits and sexist comments.

The research brief released on July 1 said “The amount of gender bias and types of media coverage received by female politicians is an important topic, particularly in our current political climate, when voters rely on media as
their primary source of political information.”

The study points out that unfair coverage on female candidates can harm their electoral chances and threatens the political longevity of sitting female politicians.

“Subtle sexism”

Founder and director of Utah Women and Leadership, Susan Madsen said the study didn’t specifically track how media outlets have changed from 1995 to 2020 but looked at media representation as a whole. However, she said they did notice the sexism prevalent in the articles has shifted from “outright” to “subtle.”

For women who first paved the way in the political arena, such as former Gov. Olene Walker, more egregious and hostile bias was common in media representation, Madsen said. In recent years, Madsen said journalists are more careful to avoid the blunt sexism, but subtle sexism still prevails.

“It’s more things that are unconscious bias because we use certain words for men and women. That’s how we are all raised,” Madsen said, giving an example of how most people are usually more interested in women’s looks over men’s looks. “If you’re not paying attention or aware, of course those subtle things come out.”

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, R-Utah said she thinks media outlets have come a long way in representing women and make a “concerted effort to be fair and balanced.” She said women in office often get ignored by media outlets more frequently.

Henderson said to help combat this, it is important to be “aware of the potential bias, not only in the media, but in ourselves.” By recognizing and spotting bias, people can check their own internal biases, and coverage can start to become more fair toward women politicians.

Madsen echoed the same idea and said good unconscious bias training would help individuals realize their biases toward women. “Students and journalists should get to know how your brain works and what you see and be intrigued with yourself, and then we can actually be more accurate in reporting, and in life.”

Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton experienced some of this “subtle” sexism during her campaign for governor in 2020. She said she was frequently asked if she was only running for governor to get picked on someone’s ticket for lieutenant governor.

One such instance occurred when a female Salt Lake Tribune reporter asked Winder Newton questions for the reporter’s male colleague who was writing a story on Winder Newton’s governor candidacy announcement. Winder Newton said the female reporter was embarrassed to ask her colleague’s last question of “Are you running for lieutenant governor?”

Winder Newton was taken aback when so many people assumed she was just running for lieutenant governor and was offended she was the only candidate being asked that. She said she thinks this is mainly a “product of culture” because in Utah, most people are used to seeing the man in charge with a woman as a sort of “helpmeet.”

The study found only 50.9%, or 195 of 383 articles analyzed, mentioned some part of the female candidate’s professional or educational background.

Celebrating gender without discrediting it

One-third of the articles called out the gender of the candidates, and a quarter of gender references highlighted the historical nature of a woman running or holding office in Utah’s male-dominated politics.

“The decision to repeatedly point out gender underscores the perceived rarity of female politicians in Utah while potentially minimizing their capabilities, experience, and knowledge,” the study said. It further claims novelty and historical labeling accentuates the gender differences in the political race rather than discussing the experience, leadership or viewpoints of the candidates.

The challenge then, is to balance the celebration of female politician’s accomplishments without discrediting it by pointing out their gender. “I think the balance comes from ‘Yes we can mention it’, but are we mentioning it all the time?” Madsen said.

Too often, she said, people take female candidates’ campaigns and focus on “Can a woman do this?” instead of focusing on the candidate’s qualifications. “We are so past that! Men and women can both be great political leaders.”

Henderson said pointing out the historic nature of candidates is OK because it helps normalize a woman being elected. But, she thinks it will be a great day when it is no longer a big deal for a woman to be elected and gender won’t need to be mentioned.

“The reality is we have few women elected in Utah,” Henderson said. She pointed out how former Utah State Senator Martha Hughes Cannon was the first woman in the United States to be elected as a state senator back in 1896. This was before most women could even vote. Henderson, before becoming the lieutenant governor, was only the 29th woman elected to the state senate in Utah.

She said having so few women being elected in the 125 years since Cannon is sad. “We started out with a bang and didn’t get very far.”

As Winder Newton was running for governor, some media outlets pointed out she would have been the first female on the ballot for governor, and she said this actually helped her campaign. “I think Utahns want to see diversity and want to not be left behind for these historic milestones,” Winder Newton said. Pointing out the historical nature helps people see that Utah hasn’t had an elected female governor yet and there is still progress to be made, she said.

As a candidate, however, Winder Newton said it would turn people away if she tried pointing out the historical nature for herself, but she is okay with that. “I think people should support me because I am the most qualified for the job, not because I am a female.”

What media outlets do and don’t focus on

For female candidates in this study, “feminine” issues, such as education, healthcare, childcare, environment and other social issues, were reported on twice as frequently as “masculine” issues, such as foreign policy, budget or finances, taxes, natural resources and armed forces.

Nearly a quarter of the articles referenced the female candidate’s family life, frequently ascribing them to caregiving roles such as mother or grandmother, and 13.6% referenced the candidate’s physical appearance including clothing, age and race.

In her experience, Henderson deals with the same substantive issues and policies as Lt. Gov. but is rarely asked about it by media outlets which is frustrating for her. She personally is asked more about the social aspect of being in office and her personal experiences.

Henderson said she enjoys talking about her family because she believes it will help normalize people seeing women in office. “I am trying to help people understand that regular, normal women with children and families can do this too,” Henderson said.

Trying to understand how a politician balances work and life is interesting. The only issues with asking about family life, is it is only ever asked of the women, Madsen said. But “the key is, if you are going to ask those questions, then get in the habit as a journalist to ask the same questions of men.”

Winder Newton said she hasn’t experienced media outlets asking about her family life too much. She was proactive during her campaign for governor and addressed issues she knew she would be asked about, including her family life. On her website she made a section about her family, describing her situation of balancing family life and work, and she included a quote from her husband showing his support for her running.

Instead, Winder Newton said she experiences more of the stereotypical judgements or sexist questions and assumptions from individual people and the general public rather than media outlets.

The research brief said the results from this study “can help Utah residents and media become more aware of potential gendered language that could negatively impact, even subtly, women candidates since ‘leadership’ is still viewed by most people as a masculine trait or activity.”

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