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The "Friendliness Trap": Feminine and Feminist Values as Obstacles for Women's Future and Career in Journalism
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At any rate, international studies have provided convincing evidence to support the ‘feminization’ of journalism. However, the very high percentage of women who graduate from journalism programs and the rising share of women entering the profession during the last two or three decades has had no significant impact on the number of women actively employed in senior and leading positions. In the majority of ‘first world’ industrialized nations, the management positions in journalism clearly continue to be male-dominated. The paper elaborates on the question which these facts provoke: How come? This theoretical contribution argues that the image of female journalists as ‘the better communicators’ is a questionable and dangerous myth and might hinder women’s further career in journalism. Part of the story is that it imports the ‘mothering’ role from home into the work place and thus creates a “friendliness trap” for female journalists which forces them to perform the “emotional labour”. The latter one however is associated with a lack of assertiveness, weak leadership skills and low status/prestige. [169 words]


Since the mid-1980s, the communications sector has expanded at an amazing rate in virtually all industrialized nations, which have made the transition from an industrial to an information and communication society relatively rapidly. This process shows no signs of stopping and with it comes the demand for competent, trained communications and information experts. Women have particularly benefited from this development. In the face of increasingly high demand, they have been able to secure positions in so called communication professions (see for example Creedon, 1989, 1993). This is also true for journalism –– until recently, traditionally a ‘men's profession’. Almost everywhere in the so called first world, the number of female journalists has increased substantially in the last few decades, although, for the most part, the trend across countries shows striking differences (see Fröhlich & Holtz-Bacha, 2003 and Fröhlich & Lafky, in press). However, the very high percentage of women who graduate from journalism programs as well as the increasing number of female employees in the field has had no significant impact on the number of women actively employed in senior and management positions in journalism. Despite the stable gender-switch which has taken place in the last two or three decades in journalism education and employment, the management positions clearly continue to be male-dominated in the majority of ‘first world’ industrialized nations. The question which these facts provoke is: Why are the stable numbers of women in employment (and especially in training!) not reflected in a clearly increasing share of women in leading management positions?


That women appear to abandon their journey to the top of the corporate ladder is a process which has been witnessed in other professions. The reasons behind women’s ‘disappearing act’ in professional careers are sufficiently well-known and are also true for women’s ‘disappearing act’ in journalism: starting a family; the associated responsibilities of raising children; ‘double shifts’ in career and home, lack of support from home and from employers, discrimination through sex-role stereotyping, male-female interaction and/or social norms, as well as greater control from management (for the latter see especially Löfgren Nilsson, 1993). However, I believe that these well-known reasons are not the only ones behind women’s ‘disappearing act’ in journalism. I would like to direct attention to other possible causes. To answer the question of what reasons hinder female journalists to make progress and to get promoted up to the top, we first have to take a closer look at possible reasons which could account for the sudden increase of women in communication professions in general. A comparison of employment figures of women for example in European communication professions with the overall employment figures of women in the European labor force shows that the increasing number of women who have obtained high educational qualifications and who are working in the media and communications sector is strikingly above average in terms of relevance of qualification to employment. I suppose, this is true also for other countries. The question therefore remains: what makes the field of communications so appealing to women?

One reason could be that having good communication skills is a particular, socially dependent and/or biologically determined trait that women possess (cf. Aries, 1976; Capek, 1989; Foss, Foss & Griffin, 1999; Hall, 1978, 1984; Reif, Newstrom, & Monczka, 1978; Sargent, 1981; Stier & Hall, 1984) and which makes them especially suited for a communication profession such as journalism. With these ideal qualities, it is said, women can rise to challenges typically found in these professions. Obviously, these qualities cannot simply be learned during academic education or training on the job like writing skills for example. It is exactly those positive qualities which are attributed to women in western culture and society, such as being able to establish and maintain intra- as well as interpersonal relationships at all levels (in both public and private situations), which comprise important pre-requisites for a successful career in the field of media and journalism (see also Rakow, 1989). Other authors even juxtapose values supposedly associated with the feminine gender, for example, cooperation, honesty or fairness and morality, with the norms of communication professions’ practice (see for example Grunig, Toth & Hon, 2000). Supposedly female characteristics such as empathy, thoughtfulness, a talent for dealing with people, and the ability to work in a team-oriented atmosphere, are all considered to be qualifications which could be used as career advantages in contrast to supposedly typical male characteristics such as cool rationality, competitiveness, aggression and individualism (cf. Aldoory & Toth, 2001).

The emphasis placed on gender-differences between men and women has traditionally functioned as a justification for the theory of male ‘superiority’, especially in the job market. In attempting to explain the ‘female boom’ in the communications sector, the rationale looks different for the first time. The new emphasis is that (presumed) gender differences between men and women are used to argue that women seem better suited to working in the sector than men. But, as popular and apparently plausible as this explanation seems, communications researchers have never scientifically examined such a claim. The question then is to find out what really lies behind the presumption that women are better communicators.

Do women communicate better?

The field of psychology has released a preponderance of studies which have attempted to explain in general – without focusing on a specific profession – if there actually exist significant gender-related differences in behavior between women and men in the workplace and between them in general. Overt gender-specific differences in verbal and non-verbal communication skills between men and women seem to have diminished over the last two decades (Collaer & Hines, 1995). However, substantial evidence can be found to support the claim that women are well ‘equipped’ with a series of socially determined skills that are precisely relevant for jobs in the communications field which is why they might appear to be better suited. For example, it has been shown that during verbal interactions, women read non-verbal signals better and more accurately than men. They express non-verbal communication differently as well: Gender-specific differences expressed through non-verbal behavior allow women to appear to be more understanding, friendlier, kinder as well as generally more sensitive in social situations than men. Women’s non-verbal behavior also expresses more warmth and social approachability. They tend to send more non-verbal signals during verbal interaction, generally express more emotion and are less distant and territorial than men. (cf. Hall, 1978, 1984; Stier and Hall, 1984)

There are also differences in verbal behavior between men and women. Men tend to interact in more task-oriented, direct, dominant and hierarchical ways than women. Women tend to behave more cooperatively and are more supportive than men: they tend to be more concerned about the social climate in social situations, strive for consensus more often than men during discussions, emphasize similarities more than differences and give more compliments and positive assessments than men (cf. Aries, 1976, 1987). During verbal interaction, women tend to be more dialogue-oriented, more honest, sensitive, fair, loyal, tolerant, co-operative and treat others on a more equal basis, than men (cf. Reif, Newstrom & Monczka, 1978; Sargent, 1981; Berryman-Fink, 1985).

It is undoubtedly true that worse things could happen to women working in journalism than to be casually regarded as being able to communicate better simply because of their friendly, polite, consensus-oriented behavior. However, gender-specific behavior is a result of gender-specific socialization as ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ and the different behavior patterns of men and women (in the workplace, for example) is also related to the fact that men and women have different social positions in society and their personal interactive and communicative behavior reflects their socially prescribed status. Alfermann (1996) suggests that: “Women, the group having the lower social status, are expected to be more socially sensitive in comparison to people with a higher social status, because these are the tools that would enable them to survive and function in society. Thus, being able to read important non-verbal signals would be an important requirement enabling them to function in the world. People with a higher social status, on the other hand, can afford to misinterpret information without running the risk of being rejected.” (p. 139)

It can be speculated, then, that this ‘reading’ strategy becomes more prevalent, the more clearly defined are the differences in social positioning. Symbolic as well as actual characteristics (such as power or higher income for example) associated with different positions also play an important factor. The corporate world, with its own fixed hierarchical system and elitist practices, is one such context, as is the communications profession journalism. I suggest that women’s ‘exceptional’ communication skills are nothing more than the learned (if not always fully conscious) use of particular behaviors and strategies, acquired during childhood socialization which positioned them as less important than boys/men. In adulthood, then, this learned behavior principally serves the purpose of maintaining a harmonious atmosphere during the communication process in order to achieve personal goals and to prosper within the given system. Research conducted by behavioral scientists refers to such behavior as ‘conciliatory gestures’ (cf. Alfermann, 1996: 140).

How a career head-start turns into a ‘friendliness trap’

As a result of the thesis that women are better communicators, more importance will be attached to gender as a social category. Thus, gender will once again be linked to strict, culturally determined stereotypes. This could force female journalists into a fixed corset – in this case the corset takes the form of the ‘ideal communicator’ – which will more than likely determine their behavior. On the basis of the claim that women communicate better, female journalists are expected to fulfil particular behavioral patterns and roles. This expectation is independent or even in contradiction to their personal skills. This could manifest as, for example, female journalists being assigned to subjects which are ‘appropriate’ for their gender and will be expected to remain within the confines of these prescribed roles. Any attempt to deviate from those roles will, in all probability, be prohibited.

Differences in verbal and non-verbal communication between men and women cannot be explained simply as the employment of different abilities. Women’s cooperative behavior often is the result of their limited social power, while the hierarchical and direct behavior of men is a result of their greater dominance and status (cf. Henley, 1977). However, if the status and hierarchy positions of women and men change, interactive and communicative behaviors can also change, independent of any supposedly fixed gender-specific skills. But this type of ‘metamorphosis’ is usually judged negatively and even condemned as deviant. In extreme cases, it can turn out to be a ‘career killer’ for men as well as women, if they try and become more ‘like’ members of the opposite sex.

Thus, it becomes clear that a vicious circle emerges. Gender specific communication skills obviously make communication professions attractive for women and allow them more access at the entry and junior level. It also could be argued that women have been deliberately targeted by the media industry over the past few years because of the particular ‘communication’ skills they possess (Berryman-Fink, 1985; Christmas, 1997). However and surprisingly enough, these skills do not have a significant influence on how long women remain in the profession or how far they will be able to advance: Women continue to drop out of journalism careers or remain in minor positions. How come? One answer could be that the very attributes which get women into journalism like sensitivity or honesty for example, often are also associated with a lack of assertiveness and weak leadership skills (see for example Cline, 1989, pp. 268–269). The result is that women fall into the ‘friendliness trap’ without even realizing it. People who are constantly praised because of their particular skills would perhaps not consider that these same skills could prove to be a disadvantage at some later point in their career.

Backstage: Behind the facade the myth loses its luster

It is evident that the percentage of women employed in journalism has steadily and significantly increased within a relatively short time. Because of gender-role expectations young women frequently and increasingly choose this profession which is deemed appropriate for their sex. The same gender-based expectations may trigger a corresponding demand by employers, which in turn reinforces supposed gender-specific expectations. The professional field as well as researchers may take this as evidence that nowadays women can pursue a professional career in journalism routinely and without discrimination. However, such a belief fails to recognize that women’s careers in journalism have often turned out to be as short-lived as in other professions.

Plus, they fail to reach high and leading positions. This shows that women don't have the same chances as men in journalism. Their presumed career head-start as the better communicators obviously doesn’t help. Instead, in the professional labor market, a re-codification takes place, whereby the higher ‘value’ placed on men compensates for their supposed entry-level disadvantage (of being poorer communicators than women) and makes it easier for them to advance in a field in which they are ‘naturally’ less qualified. In contrast, women’s ‘exceptional’ skills are utilized less because of the gender-based, vertical segregation which routinely takes place once they are working in the sector. Thus, the image of woman as ‘the better communicators’ is a questionable stereotype and a dangerous myth. It imports the ‘mothering’ role from home into the work place (see also Robinson, in press) and thus creates a “friendliness trap” for female journalists. We should prepare our female students for this new corset, this new restricted gender stereotype, this “trap”.

[2803 words incl. References and footnotes]


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