Why business schools should be aware of how the media genders women leaders and managers

Newcastle University Business School

Blog by Professor Carole Elliott and Professor Sharon Mavin

As business and management educators we have a role to develop greater awareness and appreciation of diversity in society and our workplaces. Business schools should be discussing how gender and diversity influence individuals’ aspirations and how to prevent gender discrimination hindering this. The young people we work with are the business leaders of tomorrow, yet we are not doing enough to educate them about the persistence of stereotypes in hindering women’s aspirations and progress.

If we cannot ‘see’ women leaders and managers in our everyday lives then women in these roles remain invisible and unusual. Progress towards gender equality in the UK will continue to be slow. Since 2014, with the support of the ESRC, we have been investigating how women professionals and leaders are misrepresented across all forms of media; from broadsheet newspapers to television programmes and social media. The research was initiated due to the media’s critical role in society and its influence in shaping workplace realities. Media representations of women leaders and managers are often absent or gendered, sexualised and evidenced by contradiction. For example, on the one hand we see the championing of women leaders, and on the other a media focus on women’s hair, makeup, clothes, children, weight etc. calling into question their presence and competence.

Our research has involved diverse and innovative methods: 1) eight separate research events across the UK, including an international conference and an event in the House of Commons hosted by Ruth Cadbury, MP; the gathering of ethnographic data, including group discussions; 2) textual and visual examinations of media outputs that profile women political leaders; 3) interview discussions with media producers.

Significant Findings 

  • The media have a contradictory approach to women leaders. Advantages attributed to women such as a tendency to be risk-averse, are also described as disadvantageous; if women are perceived to be risk-averse they cannot fulfil the leadership ideal of being a risk-taker. Similarly, while women may be seen as successful in adopting masculine leadership characteristics, they are often portrayed as being unable to maintain them.
  • Women’s leadership is glamourized, fetishized, and sexualized. For example, following the Global Financial Crisis, where blame for the crisis was placed on hubristic male leaders, the profile of women leaders undoubtedly rose. Yet, while the media celebrate these women, they focus on their female characteristics. Photographed in glamorous clothing and highlighting their looks and ‘feminine’ qualities in visual and narrative presentations, we witness a distancing of women leaders from the ideals associated with ‘good’ leadership.
  • Women leaders remain constrained by their appearance - the sexualisation of women leaders’ bodies is normalised and women’s leadership power is diluted.
  • The media constructs women leaders’ presence as postfeminist - as if arguments for gender equality have been won.

A salient illustration of this can be seen in Hilary Clinton’s new book, and Harvard University research into media bias against Hillary Clinton during the last presidential campaign.

Time to get our house in order - what can business schools do?

  • Agree senior management commitment to becoming gender aware – beyond accreditations;
  • Become aware of gendered media representations and ‘call these’ out with colleagues and students;
  • Check out the imagery of leadership and management on the physical and symbolic walls of business schools and in prospectuses, textbooks, case studies and websites etc.;
  • Conceptualise gender-inclusive leadership and management in teaching, research and executive development;
  • Consciously draw upon both men and women leaders and managers in teaching and research;
  • Integrate successful women leaders and managers into invited speakers’ programmes, company visits etc;
  • Men and women academics can champion gender-inclusive leadership and management - this is both a social justice and an economic issue.

NB Research Team: Professor Carole Elliott (Roehampton), Dr Valerie Stead (Lancaster), Professor Sharon Mavin (Newcastle), Dr Jannine Williams, (Bradford). ESRC funding ES/M001792/1.


Professor Carole Elliott, Professor of Human Resource Development, ‎University of Roehampton Business School
Professor Sharon Mavin, Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies and Director, Newcastle University Business School