The problem with praising exceptional women in business

Lauding women for succeeding against the odds can inadvertently perpetuate sexism.
The problem with praising exceptional women in business
Photo: George Marks/Retrofile (Getty Images)
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When women succeed in male-dominated fields, much of the attention they receive tends to revolve around the fact of their gender. Media profiles emphasize their subjects’ glass-ceiling-shattering statistics, whether they’re the first woman billionaire to pledge to donate half their wealth or the first female founder in the cereal or denim industries. Interviewers focus on questions about how female founders and executives achieved professional success while raising families or dealing with issues like infertility and sexism.

On one hand, it makes sense that so many public conversations about women leaders are attuned to gender when there’s still a dearth of female CEOs around the world and female-founded startups in the US received just 2% of venture capital funds in 2021. But a new report (pdf) from public-relations firm Finsbury Glover Hering (FGH) highlights the ways that lauding women for succeeding against the odds can wind up perpetuating the sexist status quo.

Although the report focused on German business leaders, its findings are relevant to all countries where gender inequality remains a reality.

Why focusing on gender can undermine women

The Finsbury report examined 600 recent interviews across German publications to analyze gendered patterns in how the media treats male and female executives, a term that encompasses founders, entrepreneurs, and board members.

Among the report’s most important points is that even seemingly congratulatory observations about how women are unique in their fields can have a negative impact. It calls attention to profiles that call women in construction “exotic,” refer to former Siemens chief human resources officer Janina Kugel as a “pop star,” and crown Merck CEO Belén Garijo the “first queen in the DAX,” Germany’s stock-market index. “A title like this implies that they are and will remain exceptions,” the report explains. “After all, how many pop stars or queens are there in the world?”

Similarly, the report claims that the media’s obsession with highlighting women who are the first to lay claim to a particular achievement may wind up inadvertently suggesting that it’s their gender that makes them worthy of attention, not their achievements and business savvy.

How the media covers women executives

The report’s findings underscore the lopsided coverage of male and female executive in the media:

  • Only 13% of 600 print-media interviews over the last 30 months were with female executives
  • Nearly a quarter of interviews with female managers discussed their gender
  • Stories are twice as likely to discuss women’s physical appearance compared to men’s appearance
  • Female managers are six times more likely than men to be asked about their private lives, such as their childhoods and families

All this is in keeping with the well-known phenomenon in which high-achieving women must navigate interviews that veer unexpectedly into discussions about their looks or relationship status, and receive prompts to discuss work-life balance.

One in a million

Some women may choose to push back when interviews veer into such sexist territory. There are, however, potential professional upsides to the media’s focus on gender. The report notes that “female founders receive a great deal of attention due to their special position, and that also opens up opportunities” for publicity. It’s also true that some women in business may actively want to discuss the impact that gender has had on their lives and professional trajectories.

The problem lies in how public discourse can, often inadvertently, imply that gender is the most important or interesting factor in a woman’s achievements. An overemphasis on gender not only serves to minimize individual women’s accomplishments; it can also make it more likely that women remain a rarity in fields or companies that congratulate themselves on having a few high-powered women in place and thus make no further efforts on inclusion.