The American media showed extraordinary interest in Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits throughout her public life. Journalists variously described her clothes as ugly, unflattering and frumpy. But journalists didn’t leave it at that. They also sought to decode her sartorial choices in search of a deeper meaning. For critics, her pantsuits were emblematic of an overly ambitious woman transgressing gender norms by wearing an article of clothing associated with masculinity, thus making her unfit for the presidency.

Feminists have long protested against media treatment of women in politics, but to little avail. Sexist coverage continues.

Why would any woman want to seek elected office if she knows that her physical appearance and family life will be dissected in the media?

My research on news coverage of various types of politicians and elections has found that media attention to personal topics is not a major problem for most women candidates in Canada — provided they’re White heterosexual women running for political positions of low or modest importance. Racial and sexual minority women, in general, and powerful women, in particular, can still expect news coverage to highlight their gender, race and/or sexuality.

To unpack all this, let’s start with women seeking public office at the least prestigious level of politics in Canada: municipal council. I examined newspaper coverage of the 2007 Alberta municipal elections and found that women candidates received no more attention for their personal lives and physical appearance than did men candidates. That’s not to say such information is absent in election coverage. Municipal candidates often demonstrate a strong connection to, and interest in, the community by talking about how long they and their family have lived in the area, and news coverage reflects these talking points. Journalists just don’t treat women differently by obsessing about their personal matters.

But there’s a caveat. Most municipal candidates in Canada are White. Few members of racial minorities run for municipal office, though their numbers appear to be growing thanks to efforts to recruit more diverse people to become candidates. My study reflects candidacy rates. Only a few council hopefuls whose coverage I examined were racial minority members or Indigenous people. The conclusions that I made about media behaviour thus mainly concern White women. (I didn’t examine differences by candidate sexuality and, as a result, can’t speak to how LGBTQ municipal candidates are treated by the media.)

Other research has uncovered a similar pattern in media coverage of politicians at other levels of government. Examining provincial elections in Atlantic Canada in 1999 and 2000, Joanna Everitt found journalists paid little attention to the average female candidate’s personal traits. Only the lone female party leader in the region — Elizabeth Weir of the New Brunswick NDP — was subjected to such scrutiny. Women’s personal lives were discussed more often than men’s in election news, but provincial variations in how journalists covered women candidates made it difficult for Everitt to draw conclusions. As before, these findings really apply only to White heterosexual women, who continue to dominate the list of female candidates for provincial and federal office.

The women most likely to experience media sexism today are those seeking powerful positions such as mayor, premier, prime minister or party leader.

I and my fellow researchers examined 37 years of coverage at one newspaper — The Globe and Mail — looking at how its journalists depicted women and men seeking the leadership of federal parties between 1975 and 2012. We found that the journalists placed greater emphasis on women’s bodies and personal lives than they did on men’s, and that this didn’t change over the 37 years. We published those results in 2013.

That study showed that women aspiring to powerful political positions can cause intense discomfort in some media circles. Globe coverage of Kim Campbell during the 1993 Progressive Conservative leadership campaign was more critical in tone than that of the men expected to win other leadership races, as her expected victory meant she would become Canada’s first female prime minister. Journalists downplayed her intelligence and experience when evaluating her leadership abilities. Sexist news coverage of Clinton in both 2008 and 2016 can also be attributed in part to the history-making aspects of her bid for the US presidency. Had she succeeded, she would have been the first woman to hold one of the most powerful offices in the world.

Another of our studies, published in 2015, determined that individuals who did not physically embody the traditional ideals of political leadership — White, heterosexual, male and physically fit — were treated as abnormal.

As with candidacy in general, most women who seek executive offices like party leader are White and heterosexual. But minority women who have aspired to such positions have received news coverage that reflects not only gender stereotypes but also racial and sexual stereotypes. During the 2014 Toronto mayoral campaign, journalists emphasized Olivia Chow’s immigrant background, questioning her Canadianness and, by extension, her suitability to be leader of the country’s most populous city.

Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality was a key feature of news reports on her successful campaign for the 2013 Ontario Liberal leadership, but not during the subsequent provincial election. This finding suggests that discriminatory news coverage will decline over time as (all) women’s presence in politics becomes more normalized. Scholars explore gender, sexual and racial stereotypes in Gendered Mediation: Identity and Image Making in Canadian Politics, a collection of research I contributed to and co-edited with Joanna Everitt. UBC Press will publish it in April.

But that day isn’t coming soon. Low rates of candidacy among people from racial and sexual minorities means journalists still don’t have much experience covering candidates who aren’t White or heterosexual. And that has implications for news coverage. Examining the treatment of racial minority women MPs, Erin Tolley has ascertained that journalists pay particular attention to women’s ethnic identity, country of origin (if applicable) and religion. These women have also been depicted as exotic. Other research indicates LGBTQ candidates will see their sexuality, nontraditional family arrangements and activist backgrounds emphasized in news coverage.

While political reporting has shown some improvements over time, problems persist. Journalists often express discomfort with minority women seeking elected office and with any woman seeking the most powerful ones. Only White heterosexual women aspiring to mundane political posts tend to escape media censure. Yet we need to be cautious about according the news media too much power. Media sexism isn’t stopping women from acting on their political ambitions. Women candidates are getting elected to office, and that’s what matters.

This article is part of the Changing the way we talk about women in politics special feature.

Photo: Rockland, ON – May 8, 2017: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne talking with volunteers and organizers of local flood relief. 

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Angelia Wagner
Angelia Wagner is an instructor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

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