Communication Currents

Failed Theories of Gender Difference in Media Professions

August 1, 2012
Mass Communication

Many theories and concepts have been proposed to explain the difference that gender makes or should make in mass communication professions. Gender difference might intuitively seem an easier way—compared to fairness or the inherent moral goodness of ending sexism—to justify efforts to hire and promote women in professions such as journalism. Theories are important: They “prefer” certain ways of thinking about problems, implying different kinds of solutions and policies. In the case of gender in journalism, while the goal of hiring women is admirable, many of the theories have been misleading or wrong. They are usually grounded in “essentialist” ideas-- that treat women as everywhere the same and always polar opposites of men. The essay mentions several failed theories, and advocates new principles that are better at explaining why women should be hired and promoted in mass communication professions.

Journalism research typically looks for gender differences in topics, story angles, sources, as well as professional orientation and ethics. The theory is that men report hard news and focus on “objective” facts. In contrast, women focus on features and news about or important to women, use a greater diversity of sources (including of non-elites), highlight backgrounds and consequences; and privilege audience needs. Whereas men invoke ethical rules about detachment, women supposedly approach dilemmas by looking at context. Women publishers and especially editors are said to cultivate more family-friendly newsroom cultures, hire more women, and be less rule-bound.

Surveys, however, suggest that media professionals’ gender generally matters less than professional routines; technological constraints; organizational and structural arrangements; market conditions; advertisers; and cultural and political context. Moreover, professional beliefs are more important than personal beliefs. Men and women define news and make ethics decisions in similar ways. Having assumed gender differences will be significant, however, scholars often turn to theory to explain failure to confirm these differences, to explain why women did not behave in predicted ways or why their presence failed to have the predicted impact. Especially when they collect numbers about women’s presence in media fields, both professional organizations and researchers simply assume that “of course” gender makes a difference. Then they are stuck when evidence of difference does not turn up. This leads to various lame explanations: Women conformed to professional standards of the era; learned to give normative answers; or adapted to a newsroom culture predicated on men’s preferences and habits.


Evolutionary psychology is arguably the most reductive and “essentialist” approach to sex/gender differences. Several news organizations have also promoted the work of Helen Fisher, a prominent biological anthropologist who asserts that men and women play with different decks of evolutionary cards. Fisher speculates that hormones bathing the brain at critical developmental periods caused sex differences  to suit men’s and women’s primordial jobs. Men became adept at focused, compartmentalized, step-by-step reasoning. Ancestral mothers needed to do (and see) many things at the same time, because they raised babies under dangerous conditions. So, they became good at contextual, holistic thinking. If women’s “natural” talents were marginalized for centuries, Fisher says, the contemporary information age appreciates and needs them. Addressed to popular audiences, however, Fisher’s work is based on an idiosyncratic hodge-podge of research, anecdotes, and quotes from people of unclear expertise.

Cultural feminism is even more explicit than evolutionary psychology about re-valuing femininity in order to celebrate it. Cultural feminism offers a matriarchal vision of women correcting masculine tendencies to selfishness and violence. The corollary claim that women bring different values to journalism is particularly evident in attempts to identify sex differences in war reporting. Some women exploited such notions to win high status war reporting assignments. On the other hand, some women hate being assigned human interest stories, precisely because of the stereotype of women as more attuned to war’s “human side.” That is, women’s choices are responses to sexism, not outcomes of sex differences. Romanticizing women’s alleged preference for consensus and peace is distorting, not only methodologically but effectively. It forces women to express sentiment they don’t feel and ignores crucial feminist insights on the arbitrary and constructed quality of gender.


Directly invoking patriarchy, another theory is that especially token women--hired in a symbolic gesture for the sake of appearance--deny their own female-ness, act tough, and hate other women. Scholarly literature rarely confirms such allegations. This is not to deny that women journalists have complained about a patriarchal newsroom culture. But reasoning becomes circular when all women journalists who downplay gender distinctions are automatically accused of subconsciously adopting male norms, self-deception, and internalized sexism.

One of the most popular theories of why women’s presence did not seem to noticeably change news content borrowed from nuclear physics, where the term critical mass refers to the quantity needed to start a chain reaction. Feminist social scientists put that number at 30 percent: Once women were one-third of journalists, women would get more, and more accurate, coverage. The concept of critical mass is conceptually weak, however, endorsing a double bind for women: It requires women to bring something distinctive to the table and simultaneously to be “professional.” In any case, once women constituted one-third of journalists, the evidence of significant differences was weak and/or mixed. Ironically, critical mass theory also gave rise fear of the Pink Ghetto. Since jobs associated with women are low status and low paid, when a field shifts from male- to female-dominated, its pay and the prestige fall. Women’s incursion into journalism would therefore, in a vicious circle, degrade journalism. But the Pink Ghetto likewise did not come to pass. The dramatic decline in the symbolic and monetary rewards of what has been called “feminized” journalism resulted from technological change and a market-driven turn to consumer-orientations, not women’s incursion.

In any case, when women did not make more of a difference, despite critical mass, scholars turned to the paucity of women executives. The glass ceiling refers to invisible but impenetrable barriers artificially barring women from decision making positions.  According to headlines, women executives would buck male norms and create a different newsroom culture, if only they could break through that barrier. The notion that  senior leaders of organizations can influence an organization’s culture was consistent with gate keeping, the notion that editors’ personal beliefs influenced their understanding of what was newsworthy. But this exaggerates editors’ autonomy and thus their impact. In any case, research does not show that women editors or news managers make significantly different hiring decisions or that they require their staffs to make different decisions. This is not to say nothing has changed: Men may want to prove they are not sexist and therefore use more women as sources. Some women are willing to be path-breakers. Generally, however, people who achieve management positions adapt to the newsroom culture.

Continuing to dichotomize gender ignores how journalism itself has changed, in part because social, political, and economic change, as well as changes in the status of women, who are not necessarily the opposite of men. More importantly, race, class, and gender are not separate or independent, but are mutually constructed. The value of maximum diversity in mass communication professions is better explained by emphasizing how experiences—and therefore our thinking and literally our work—are affected by multiple and intersecting dimensions of identity. Indeed, we should not fear to oppose sexism on principle, even if women and men do not practice journalism in significantly different ways.

About the author (s)

Linda Steiner

University of Maryland, College Park

Director, Research and Doctoral Studies