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How Media Stereotypes Impact Gender Equality in Leadership

The stats that came out yesterday from the Australian Gender Equality Agency make for a sobering, if not unsurprising read. There is no doubt that progress has been made around gender equality in the workplace. For example there has been a small increase in key management personnel who are women (28.5%) and appointments of women to management role at 42.6%. However, that men earn nearly &27,000 a year more than women and 5 out of 6 CEO’s are men, indicate that there is a long way to go yet.

The reasons for this are multiple, complex, interrelated and too many to explore in one article. Reasons that relate both to societies view of and expectations of women and the expectations they have of themselves. They include entitlement, confidence and fear of change both personal and in relation to a broader society. One reason that both feeds into and impacts on all of the others is how women are portrayed as leaders in popular media.

Have a look at the pictures below. I found these pictures when I tried to use clipart to find some empowering pictures of women leading for a talk I was giving. I found the pictures by typing in clip art search, the following terms:

  • ‘Women leading as mothers’
  • ‘Women leading at work’
  • ‘Women leading in religious communities’
  • ‘Women leading in business’
  • ‘Women leading as executives’ and
  • ‘Women leading in the community’

As you can see, far from the empowering images I was seeking, what I found was a number of stereotypes that tell a different story. Not very empowering are they?


Source clip art February 2016

This is an important visual story. Pictures paint a thousand words and similar images are in films, media and advertising. They are everywhere and we don’t consciously notice them. Unconsciously though, they reinforce the status quo and belittle women. They belittle our capabilities, impact our confidence and make us and our leadership at best invisible, at worst appear incompetent.

Add to this how women leaders are described. Below are a few of the words commonly used to describe male and female leaders who are exhibiting the same behaviors.

Women Leaders                                                  Male Leaders

Bossy                                                                          Commanding

Scary                                                                           Cut Throat

Tough                                                                         Decisive

Mean                                                                          Competitive

Frumpy                                                                      Conservative

Flirty                                                                           Charismatic

Just like a man

Source: How to beat the female leadership stereotypes, The Guardian 9.12.13

These words are commonly heard and seen in relation to visible women leaders. They have the potential to significantly influence the way women perceive themselves as both women and as leaders. Notice how negative and one-dimensional they are. Also notice the differences between the visual and verbal stereotypes. From incompetent to despotic – which are we? The answer of course is neither and we do not have to believe these stereotypes. We do not have to try them on for size. They, like all stereotypes do not describe the complexity of reality.

Despite that, these pervasive labels have the potential to erode women’s individual and collective confidence. They keep women faithful to the safety of the ‘good girl’ image because the associated caricatures and archetypes are worse.

Our collective challenge as a society, despite the range of barriers related to these stereotypes, is for both men and women to recognize them and challenge them through conversation. In this small way, we can collectively support and encourage a different way forward so that women don’t stand alone when they choose to step up and contribute as both leaders and to the leadership conversation.

If you think leadership coaching would better enable you to either embrace your inner leader or support women as their leader, please give Debra a call on  0421 775 924 or email


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