In addition to providing the reader with an overview of the history of the media in general and newspapers in particular, this history of women and their role in newspapers, both as readers and journalists, also includes a consideration of women’s history and the representation of women in the media and women in a new career arena.
The literature review then tightens its focus to address specific ways in which businesswomen are represented in newspapers, with an emphasis on the portrayal of professional women in the media. Finally, this history of women in newspapers and as journalists and those depicted concludes with an integrative analysis that considers how all of these factors interact with one another in such a way that the newspaper shapes the way the public perceives businesswomen. The purpose is to add to the body of existing knowledge about communications, which has implications not only for business, but also for media coverage and the portrayal of women in the media. While many existing studies have examined the portrayal of women in magazines (Signorelli, 1997), there are far fewer studies on the subject of how women are portrayed in newspapers, and how those portrayals shape public perceptions and, by extension, business policies and practices. Considering the paucity of studies in this area, it is important to create a system to review newspapers and audit the representation of women. While there is hope that the representation of women has increased proportionately as women continue to enter the field of business, and as women’s rights have progressed, evidence to substantiate an increase is necessary.
In fact, almost 20 years after the transition from the era of women’s pages, women remain underrepresented in news content. “Historically,” writes Armstrong (2006), “the majority of news sources have been male” (p. 447). A recent study of international media revealed that “79 percent of experts quoted in the news media around the world are men while a mere 21 percent are women” (“Media mirror,” 2006, p. 11). In addition, only 25% of newsmakers were women; at this rate, observed the author of the report, it will take at least 75 years to achieve gender parity in all aspects of representation in newspaper reporting (“Media mirror,” 2006). While many newspapers are attempting to diversify their content in general, from the story idea to the subject, the source, and the reader, the fact of the matter is that in an attempt to be more inclusive of women, newspapers have often adopted the strategy of pushing article ideas that continue to reflect “women’s issues” narrowly. In fact, the very term “women’s issues” has become an ambiguous umbrella under which a category of stories and themes are clustered; the term itself has become so broad that it has begun to lose meaning (Armstrong, 2006, p. 448).
As Armstrong (2006) notes, “women’s issues… ranges from topical issues like breast cancer and hormone replacement therapy to stories about weddings and parties….” (p. 448). Yet while more women take on positions in business and society that have traditionally been reserved for men, stories and sources in newspapers are not reflecting the shift (Armstrong, 2006). The problem, then, is that while more stories that are allegedly intended to interest women are being included in newspaper content, the number and quality of stories representing women in the general content of the newspaper remain scant. As Armstrong (2006) observes, the implications of such an approach to reporting is significant because it “may signal [to] readers that that women are unimportant for public events and activities and undeserving of leadership roles” (pp. 448-449); it may also push women away from newspapers as readers. Despite newsroom editors’ intentions to be inclusive in coverage, Rintala and Birrell (1984) argue that newspapers tend to preserve the status quo rather than act as agents of social change. Quite simply, although women have made increasing inroads in almost all areas of professional and social life, represented in politics, sports (Flatten, 1996), and corporate business, they remain inadequately and disproportionately underrepresented by all media, including newspapers.
Newspapers are not simply about text, photographs came to play an important role in newspapers across the country. One way in which the photograph was paired with text in the newspaper in such a way to appeal specifically to women readers was in those sections of the newspaper that came to be known as the women’s pages, a tradition that can be traced at least as far back as the 1890s (Armstrong, 2006; Fahs, 2005 ). In women’s pages, the “four Fs” were core content: “family, food, fashion, and furnishings” (Armstrong, 2006, p. 449). Special sections of the newspaper were developed for women, including society pages, which covered engagements and weddings; food sections, which included recipes and tips on being a good homemaker; and beauty sections, recently refashioned as women’s health, in which women received advice—some clinical and most not—about how to look beautiful, if not stay healthy (Armstrong, 2006). Even when women were reporting the stories in the women’s pages, the assumption of editors was that these types of stories were particularly appropriate for women—as opposed to “hard” news—because “women were assumed to have special abilities at the emotive storytelling, character sketches, and telling anecdotes that human interest stories demanded” (Fahs, 2005 , p. 306). While many women journalists pushed their editors to assign them stories that were relevant to a general audience and which represented real news as opposed to filler, the majority of women were relegated to these special pages (Fahs, 2005).
The problem of the women’s pages approach was that it marginalized women. By creating “special” sections that newspaper editors and—importantly—advertisers believed were geared expressly for women, the newspaper actually, if unconsciously, assumed that women were either uninterested in “real” news or that they were not qualified or capable of being a part of such news, either as subjects or as sources. Interestingly, although the women’s pages may have had “content for women,” such content was not always “content about women.” In other words, even in articles themed around interests believed to be specifically feminine, men often remained more prominent than women as quoted sources, observers, and experts (Armstrong, 2006). The obvious shift away from women’s pages began in the 1990s, as the traditionally female sections of the newspaper began to be renamed with less obviously gender-specific titles. Beauty sections were now called Health or Lifestyle, for instance. The intention and the effect, however, had not changed significantly.
One may argue that the bias against women in newspapers is merely a reflection of the bias that exists against women in society, both historical and contemporary. American women have long been in a position of not enjoying parity with men, whether the kind of parity being discussed is professional, political, social, or economic in nature (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 2005). In recent years, however, the gains made by the feminist/women’s movement have made it possible for women to begin chipping away at the glass ceiling. More women than ever are participating in the workplace, more women than ever are occupying positions of professional authority and power, and more women than ever are beginning to approach salary earnings that are close—but not quite on par—to those of their male counterparts (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 2005). An examination, then, of how newspaper reporting has or has not evolved in its coverage of professional women and their workplace actions, challenges, and accomplishments cannot be possible without understanding some of the background and contextual factors that have brought women to this unprecedented point of professional participation.