International women’s day campaigns for greater gender equity.
Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), which means it’s a good day to reflect on issues of gender equity and possible actions we might take make the world a more equitable place for all genders.
TBH I don’t really see how one can disagree with the goals of IWD which are to realise a world which is free of stereotypes and discrimination, equitable, inclusive and celebrates diversity.
The website above is well worth checking out, there is too much to mention in one post, but there is A LOT of material relevant to A-level sociology.
The main theme of 2023 is embracing equity (#EmbraceEquity)
equality is giving all people the same resources and opportunities
equity is recognising that people have different abilities and giving each person the appropriate resources to achieve the same outcomes.
The difference can be summed up in this handy cartoon:
Hence in the workplace it involves measures like wheelchair access or specialist equipment for those who need it, sufficient so that they can contribute on an equal level.
In terms of gender, I guess equity in the workplace may involve recognising, for example, that pregnant or menopausal women may need occasional additional time off that simply wouldn’t be the case for their male partners.
There are several themes for this year’s IWD, but of particular interest to me (probably reflecting my male bias) is the equity in work theme, and within that (reflecting my age bias) is the issue of the pension pay gap:
There’s also some analysis into why the gap exists, and it includes the usual reasons such as women being more likely to be in part-time work and more likely to take employment breaks for child care.
There are several other themes and I suggest you take the time to explore for yourself, there is a lot of good material!
You can even, if you are that way inclined, take a selfie hugging yourself ’embracing equity’, personally that’s not for me, but by all means go for it and upload it to your preferred centralised social media platform, or if like me you aren’t a limited social media web 3.0 dinosaur, upload it to a DECENTRALISED platform.
This material is relevant to the major theme of gender equality within A-level sociology.
This post summarises some of the most recent data on the extent of discrimination against LGBTQ people, and is aimed at A-level sociology students studying aspects of sex and gender and gender inequality across the A-level specification.
The LGBTQ survey carried out in 2018 by the Government Equalities Office found that:
LGBT respondents were less satisfied with their life than the general UK population (rating satisfaction 6.5 on average out of 10 compared with 7.7).
Trans respondents had particularly low life-satisfaction scores (around 5.4 out of 10)
40% of respondents had experienced verbal harassment or physical violence because they were LGBTQ in the last 12 months.
2% had undergone conversion therapy.
The above survey was based on a sample of 108 100 respondents and was hosted online for a total of 12 weeks.
There was also some evidence from this survey that there is discrimination against Trans people when applying for work, but this is only based on one response…
75% had experienced discrimination based on their gender or sexuality at least once in their lifetime.
42% had seriously considered suicide in the last year, with more than 50% of transgender and non binary youth reporting this.
13% reported being subject to conversion therapy .
Relevance to A-level Sociology
Sex and Gender inequalities are one of the core aspects taught across A-level sociology, but statistics and research on sexuality and transgender issues are lacking in most of the A-level text books.
This post is an attempt to make this increasingly relevant aspect of gender and gender identity more accessible.
From a research methods point of view it’s worth noting how little research and monitoring are done on LGBTQ inclusion and discrimination – for example the latest nation wide government survey above was four years ago in 2018.
The resources below have been selected to help A-level sociology students and teachers studying (and teaching) an introduction to the concepts of sex and gender in the very first weeks of the two year course.
However the material below should also be useful across the entire two year sociology specification, and especially in the Theory and Methods aspect of the second year of study where Feminism and gender equality is one of the main themes.
Only one third of 18-24 year olds identify as ‘completely heterosexual’
Two YouGov tracking surveys demonstrate how far gender identities vary across the generations and suggest that gender fluidity is now the new norm among 18-24 year olds in the UK.
One survey on sexual orientation asks people to identify themselves on a scale of sexuality where 0 is ‘completely heterosexual’ and 6 is ‘completely homosexual’ (respondents also had the opportunity to enter ‘no sexuality’ as an option.
The results below are the latest responses from the August 2022 survey.
Only 35% of 18-24 year olds identify as ‘completely heterosexual’
87% of people aged 65 and over identify as ‘completely heterosexual’…
Sexuality as a Scale
The findings above broadly fit into the views the two different age groups have on whether sexuality is fixed or a sliding scale.
18-24 year olds are much less likely to identify as completely heterosexual compared to 65 and overs (35% compared to 85%)
Younger people are also more likely to see sexuality as fluid compared to older people, but the differences here are smaller (74% compared to 54%).
For younger people (18-24) these YouGov surveys suggest that gender fluidity is the new norm with the majority of young people now identifying as ‘somewhere between completely heterosexual and completely homosexual’ in August 2022.
It is also worth noting that relatively few 18-24 respondents identified as completely homosexual, offering further support for the new ‘gender fluid’ norm.
The fact that 75% of 18-24 years olds think gender is a scale offers more support for the view that people see gender as something fluid, and not as fixed by one’s sex for example.
And while a huge 85% of over 65s identify as completely heterosexual, a relatively low 54% of them believe sexuality is a scale, suggesting the majority of them accept the fact that younger people view their sexuality differently even if the over 65s themselves are much more likely to feel completely heterosexual.
Societal Change and Changing Gender Identities…
The most obvious interpretation/ explanation of the above results is that society has gone through a massive ‘sexuality shift’ over the last four decades. Today, in 2022 it is much more acceptable to be openly gender fluid and so this makes it easier to ‘come out’ and identify as such, and this is precisely what young people are doing.
In contrast, people who are today over 60 were born in a much more gender and sexuality repressive age – with traditional male and female roles still the norm and overt discrimination against gay people, thus their gender identities were channelled into more narrow conceptions of heterosexuality with which they are now stuck.
All of this seems to suggest that social context plays a large role in shaping gender identities and raises very interesting questions about the relative role of agency and social institutions and how they interplay to explain how there has been such a rapid shift in the changing gender identities of the young…
Once gender fluid always gender fluid…?
The above survey results don’t tell us whether the more fluid gender identities of the young will change to being more ‘set’ over the course of their lives.
It could be that ‘knowing one’s sexuality’ takes many years, even decades, and that by the time today’s 18-24 year olds are themselves 65, they are by then reporting higher levels of heterosexuality.
It may have been that more of today’s 65 year olds would have identified as gender-fluid when they themselves were younger.
Relevance to A-level Sociology
The above data suggests that most people see gender as a scale, something which Sam Killerman has explored through his concept of the GenderBred person which I outline in this introductory post on sex and gender.
The Gyaan Centre is a new school for girls soon to be opened in Rajasthan, India.
Rajasthan is one of the most conservative states in India, with women and girls still being limited to very traditional roles – many girls are still married off early and then their only prospect is to be tied to their husband and household as wives and mothers.
This is reflected in Rajasthan’s extremely low female literacy rate, which is currently under 60%.
However, thanks to the new Gyaan Centre, 400 girls a year will now be provided with the opportunity to receive an education.
This isn’t a typical school, because the founders realised they would have to work within local norms in order for the school to stand any chance of success, so it isn’t just offering a ‘standard’ academic style of education of its pupils.
It is also going to be offering training in local crafts such as dyeing yoga matts to the mothers and aunts of its pupils and have a craft market aimed at the tourists who frequent the local area (or at least did before Covid-19, but no one could have predicted that!)
This is an interesting example of how a development project has to be rooted in local culture in order to stand a chance of being a success (assuming it will be of course!) rather than just being imposed by the West, and thus being irrelevant.
It’s also a nice reminder of how students shouldn’t generalise about the level of development in any country, especially one such as India with a population of one billion people.
While India has seen rapid economic development over the past decades, gender equality lags behind, and in certain regions, such as Rajasthan it is particularly poor, hence the need for targeted local development projects such as this.
Back in Time for the Factory is a really useful documentary series from the BBC which explores how working class women’s working rights have changed since 1968.
The documentary consists mainly of ‘historical reenactment’ in which a number of ordinary women (and some men) go into a garment factory in Wales and work as women would have done through the last few decades.
This real life historical re-enactment is supplemented with interviews with older women who really lived through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and with footage of news clips which document significant events – such as the various strikes which women organised in order to get equal pay.
The documentaries might be a bit long-winded to watch in their entirety, but selected clips will certainly give you a feel for the gender inequalities in the workplace in the late 1960s, how women campaigned for equal pay (with very little support from men early on) and how employers tried to dodge paying women the same as men by re-grading certain jobs after the initial equal pay acts of the 1970s!
50 years ago, Britain was a manufacturing powerhouse, with an astonishing 34% of the population working on a manufacturing production line. Factories mostly employed women – hundreds of thousands of them, who made our clothes, telephones and televisions.
The factories were centred on areas of high unemployment like the south Wales valleys and by employing so many women and girls they were at the forefront of a change in British society. But the women who would drive that change were poorly paid, unfairly treated and denied basic rights.
Women’s Working Rights 1968-1972
Starting in 1968 when 85% of all our high street clothes were made in the UK, the women experience the realities of working life for women in these three crucial decades – from the excitement of being out in the work place to the pressures of ever increasing targets, the camaraderie of the factory floor and fun-filled evenings at the social club. Most eyeopening of all is the contents of their wage packets – revealing to our modern workers the deeply ingrained attitudes towards women’s work as inferior and helping them understand what galvanised a generation to fight for change.
The workers start their journey in 1968, when The Beatles and Tom Jones are topping the charts, Labour’s Harold Wilson is Prime Minister and big hair abounds. It is also the year the female strikers of Dagenham brought the Ford factory to a standstill and the question of women’s pay into the headlines. Their first task is to produce pink nylon petticoats – a staple of British women’s wardrobes in an era when only 30% of houses had central heating. The reality of the production line is a rude awakening for many – long monotonous hours with short breaks and few distractions – a situation made worse for some of our women when they discover that it’s legal to refuse to serve an unaccompanied woman in a public bar.
But that is far less of a shock than the moment they open their pay packets and realise some of them are being paid less than half the rate of the men on the factory floor.
Women in the Factory 1973-1975
The second episode starts in 1973, but even though the Equality Act had been passed in 1970, the women discover that things are still far from equal on the factory floor as the factory bosses had been given five years to bring in the changes.
The workers also get to experience the upsides of factory work – enjoying the range of clubs and activities which factory bosses supported while manufacturing was still thriving.
Episode three starts in 1976 when the Sex Discrimination Act had been passed and the Equal Pay Act had finally come in to force the year before.
However, by 1976, women were still earning only 74 per cent of the male hourly rate as employers all over the country found loopholes to avoid paying women more.
Feminism is in full-swing in the mid 1970s and the women have to decide whether they will strike for further equality in an age of uncertanity, navigating the world of pickets, banners and crossing the line.
Off the production line, the factory holds its own beauty pageant – an event companies all over Britain would have been happy to support as part of social life of the workplace. No beauty contest was complete without the glamour of the swimsuit round, and our factory pageant is no different. But how will the modern women feel about parading in their swimming costumes? Less
Working women… 1983 Onwards
The fourth episode starts in 1983, four years after Margaret Thatcher came to power. While that event may make you think that women have achieved equality, the working class women in the Welsh factories had another fight on their hands in the 1980s – the fight for their jobs in the age of neoliberalism!
Changes in women’s employment, family life, ambitions, socialisation and the impact of feminism all explain the gender gap in education
Girls outperform boys in most subjects at every level of education: from primary school to degree level. There are five main social factors external to the school which explain why girls outperform boys in education:
changes in women’s employment
changes in the family
changing girls’ ambitions
the impact of feminism
differential socialisation of boys and girls.
This post explores these five social factors analysing the impact they may have on girls in education, and then goes on to look at personal level factors.
Changes in women’s employment
The number of men and women in paid work is now virtually the same. The employment rate for women is 72.3% and for men it is 79% (2).
This represents a significant change since the early 1970s when the employment rate for men was over 90% and for women it was under 60%.
Over the last 50 years there has been a growing service sector where women are increasingly likely to be employed over men and employers increasingly seek women for higher managerial roles because they generally have better communication skills than men. This means women now have greater opportunity than men in the world of work which makes education more relevant to them than in the 1970s when there was a relative lack of opportunity for women compared to men.
Conversely, there is now less opportunity for men. The decline in manufacturing has led to a decline in traditional working-class men’s factory based jobs. Boys like the lads studied by Paul Willis would have intended to go into these jobs. Now these jobs have gone, many working-class boys perceive themselves as having no future.
A review of the literature by Bertocchi and Bozzano (2019) found that the improvement in female educational achievement from the 1980s to the 2000s can be explained by the increasing post-school expectations for females and the increasing probability that women could go into high-income occupations relative to men.
Pekkarinen (2012) theorised that the widening gap between females and males in education is due to the relative effort-costs of education in relation to returns. Since the 1980s females have been seeing increasing returns on their investment in education as they have greater and greater access to better jobs, while boys have been experiencing reducing returns relative to girls.
There are a lack of high status higher vocational courses and qualifications in England and Wales, which would be more appealing to boys compared to degrees (boys are much more likely to do vocational courses). Only 4% of over 25 year olds in England hold a higher vocational qualification compared to Germany where it is over 20%!
Changes in the family
Changes in family life and structure over the past 50 years mean it is much more normal for women to start a career in their 20s and maintain that career through their adult lives.
People get married much later in life, in their mid to late 30s rather than in their 20s, and dual earner households are now the norm, both of which normalise women having careers.
Divorce Rates (and just relationship breakdowns) are also high as a rates of single parent households (most of which are headed by women), both of which would encourage women to work as in both situations it is desirable to have your own income.
However, the increasing independence of women has led to a more uncertain role for men in British society, leaving many men feeling vulnerable and unsure of their identity in society – suffering from a crisis of masculinity.
These changes may feed back into education, encouraging women and discouraging men.
Girls’ changing ambitions
Sue Sharpe did a classic piece of research in the 1970s, repeated in the 1990s in which she interviewed young girls about their ambitions. In the 1970s their priorities were to get married and have a family, but by the 1990s their priorities were to get a career and have a family later on in life.
The impact of feminism
Feminism has campaigned for equal rights and opportunities for women in education, the workplace and wider society more generally. Feminist sociologists argue that many of the above changes have been brought about by their attempts to highlight gender inequalities in society and their efforts to encourage the government, schools and teachers to actually combat patriarchy and provide genuine equality of opportunity which has led to raising the expectations and self-esteem of girls.
Fiona Norman in 1988 Found that most parents think the appropriate socialisation for a girl is to handle her very gently, and to encourage her in relatively passive, quiet activities. Parents are also more likely to read with girls than with boys. Gender stereotypes held by parents also mean that ‘typical boys’ need more time to run around and play and ‘let off steam’, and parents are more likely to be dismissive if their boys are in trouble at school often seeing this as just them being ‘typical boys’. These gender stereotypes and differences in gender socialisation disadvantage boys and advantage girls in education.
Aucejo and James (2016) conducted a study which found that verbal skills were more important than maths skills in gaining a place at university, and females have significantly better verbal skills than males.
Personal level Factors
A summary of some recent research on differential achievement by gender by Cavaglia et al (1) found that a range of individual and personal level factors contribute to the gender gap in education, many of which will work in conjunction with the social level factors above.
Terrier (2020) found that teacher bias plays a role in why girls do better than boys in education.
According to the OECD (2015), the most important reasons for the gender gap are students’ attitudes towards learning, their behaviour in school, their use of leisure time, and their self-confidence.
A review of the literature by Buchmann et al. (2008) found that males are more likely than females to experience reading disabilities, antisocial behaviour, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, and speech difficulties.
There is also evidence that adolescent girls score higher in tests measuring non-cognitive skills such as attentiveness, organisational skills, and self-discipline.
Bertrand and Pan (2013) found that boys behavioural problems stem from their home backgrounds: boys’ behaviour is more strongly influenced by their parents than the behaviour of girls.
One counter to this lies in research from Lundberg (2017) – boys and girls react to home and school problems in different ways: boys are more likely to develop behavioural problems, girls to develop anxiety and depression, but this doesn’t explain the gender gap alone. Possibly the differential reaction in school does: schools are more likely to react negatively to boys behaving badly than girls being quiet!
Boys are more likely than girls to fail their GCSE English by getting lower than a grade C/4 and Machin et al. (2020) found that even marginally failing to get a good grade drastically reduces the chances of a student staying on into further and higher education and increases their chances of becoming NEET.
The main set of exams, GCSEs, which have a huge impact on future educational pathways are sat at 16, when boys are going through puberty, this probably puts them at a disadvantage to girls who go through puberty earlier.
Differences in innate ability do not explain the gender gap
A literature review by Spelke (2005) found that sex differences in cognitive abilities do not explain the gender gap in education. While girls do have intrinsically slightly higher cognitive abilities, they are not significant enough alone to make them more adept at schoolwork than boys.
Limitations of external factors in explaining the gender gap in education
The decline of manufacturing and crisis of masculinity only affects working class boys, possibly explaining their achievement relative to girls, but middle class girls outperform middle class boys too, who are less likely to associate masculinity with factory work.
McDowell conducted research on the aspirations of white working-class youth. He researched a sample of males with low educational achievement living in Sheffield and Cambridge aged 15 and followed them from school to work. The findings Criticise the notion of a crisis of masculinity leading to aggressive male identities These lads had traditional laddish identities but were not aggressive or put off by ‘feminized work’ They are best described as reliable workers making the most of limited opportunities available to them.
Willis in 1977 argued that the Lads formed a counter school culture and rejected education even when they had secure jobs they could just walk into, meaning there are other causes of male underachievement besides the crisis of masculinity.
It is difficult to measure the impact of Feminism: changes in the job market that lead to improved opportunities for women may be due to other technological and cultural changes.
The socialisation girls does not explain why they started to overtake boys in the late 1980s: if anything gender socialisation has become more gender neutral in recent years.
Concepts and research studies to remember
Crisis of Masculinity
Research studies to remember
Kat Banyard – research into gender stereotyping in the family
This post focuses on traditional representations of men as reinforcing aspects of hegemonic masculinity before considering some of the changes to male representations in more recent years.
Traditional representations of men reinforce hegemonic masculinity
Traditional representations of men have ascribed certain attributes to male characters such as strength, power, control, authority, rationality and lack of emotion. In other words, media representations of men have reinforced hegemonic masculinity.
Gilmore has summarised this even more simply, arguing that the media stereotype men into ‘the provider, the protector and the impregnator’.
Violence as a normal part of masculinity
According to Earp and Katz (1999) the media have provided us with a steady stream of images which define violence as an ordinary or normal part of masculinity, or in their own words….
“The media help construct violent masculinity as a cultural norm. Media discourse reveals the assumption that violence is not so much a deviation but an accepted part of masculinity”.
Wider representations of men and masculinity
Children Now (1999) conducted research in the late 1990s and found that there were six common types of representation of men in the media
The joker – uses laughter to avoid displaying seriousness or emotion
The jock – demonstrates his power and strength to win the approval of other men and women
The strong silent type (James Bond) – being in charge, acting decisively, controlling emotion and succeeding with women.
The big shot – power comes from professional status
The action hero – strong and shows extreme aggression and violence
The Buffoon – a bungling father figure, well intentioned and light hearted. (Homer). Hopeless at domestic affairs.
(Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity, Children Now 1999).
The Crisis of Masculinity, the New Man and changing representations of masculinity
As with women, the changing roles of men in society are reflected in changing representations of men in the media.
Representations of men are moving away from absolute toughness, stubborn self-reliance and emotional silence with more male characters being comfortable with showing emotions and seeking advice about how to deal with the problems of masculinity.
There are also an increasing amount of images within advertising which encourage men to be concerned with body image and appearance as well as a sexualisation of male bodies, in which they are presented as sex objects for female viewing pleasure, much in the same way as female bodies have been traditionally been used by the media.
The gap between men and women in terms of pay, and representation in big companies is decreasing rapidly, but significant inequalities remain in both of these areas, domestic life, and chances of being a victim of sexual assault. All of this is despite the fact that girls have been outperforming boys at GCSE (and above) for decades. The only area of life where there seems to be equality is reported happiness levels, yet women still report slightly higher anxiety levels.
This post summarises statistics from six key areas of social life:
income – the gender pay gap.
domestic life – amount of time spent on leisure and unpaid work
economic power – the proportion of women represented on the boards of large companies
education – GCSE results
crime – the number of men and women who have been victims of sexual assault.
well being – reported levels of happiness and anxiety.
There are a lot statistics available on gender inequality (both in the UK and worldwide) and here I’ve tried to select just six key statistics that summarize the state of gender inequality today.
I’ve kept the data to a minimum so as to avoid information overload, as this post is written as part of an introduction to A-level sociology for students in their first week of study. I’ve also deliberately selected data that is relevant to the topics students are likely to be studying deeper into the A-level, such as families and households and education, so they can get a first look at it now.
If you want to find out more about trends in gender equality in the U.K. I recommend the U.K. Government’s Gender Equality Monitor, which tracks progress towards gender equality. This recent report was very much the basis for this post!
NB – you’ll find it easier just read the charts if you click here to get to my Tableau Public page where I’ve stored all of the data visualizations below.
Women’s Income compared to men’s
The gender pay gap has fallen by about 10 percentage points since 1997, but the pay gap remains at just below 9%.
Hopefully you found this post useful, writing it has been a bit of a learning curve as I’m currently teaching myself how to use Tableau to do data visualizations.
You might like to cross-reference this post with the four Feminist Theories you need to now about for A-level Sociology (Radical, Liberal, Marxist and Difference Feminisms) and consider which theories the above data support or criticise.
The Equality Monitor Report of 2019 gathered a lot of data together in one report, but in 2023 you need to go to different sources to gather more up to date data.
The media have historically under-represented women, something Tuchman referred to as ‘symbolic annihilation’; women have also been misrepresented through stereotyping and subject to the ‘male gaze’. However, in recent years representations of women are more common and more postive.
Women have historically been underrepresented and misrepresented in stereotypical roles within mainstream media.
This post focuses on symbolic annihilation, the cult of femininity and the male gaze as examples of this, and then looks at whether things have changed in recent decades.
Under-representation and symbolic annihilation
Gaye Tuchman (1978) developed the concept of Symbolic Annihilation to refer to the under-representation of women in a narrow range of social roles, while men were represented in a full range of social and occupational roles.
Tuchman also argued that women’s achievements were often not reported or trivialised and often seen as less important than things like their looks
According to Tuchman, women were often represented in roles linked to gender stereotypes, particularly those related to housework and motherhood – a good example of this being washing powder advertisements in which mothers and small daughters are working together, while men and boys are the ones covered in mud. This post has some excellent examples of such stereotypes.
Ferguson (1980) conducted a content analysis of women’s magazines from the end of WWII to 1980 and found that representations were organised around what she called the cult of femininity, based on traditional, stereotypical female roles and values: caring for others, family, marriage, and concern for appearance.
Ferguson noted that teenage magazines aimed at girls did offer a broader range of female representations, but there was still a focus on him, home and looking good for him.
The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in 2006 found that there was little coverage of women’s sport, but what little coverage there was had a tendency to trivialise, sexualise and devalue women’s sporting achievements. HOWEVER, this later example may be something that has changed considerably over the last decade (see below).
Misrepresentations (myths and stereotypes)
In ‘The Mouse that Roared’ Henry Giroux argued that women were represented in a narrow, restricted and distorted range of roles.
Supporting evidence for Giroux lies in the historical representation of female characters in Disney Films – where the typical female character is a sexualised yet delicate princess who needs to be rescued by a stronger male character.
Examples of where Disney reinforces female stereotypes include:
Snow White – who cleans the house of the male dwarves and is eventually rescued by a male prince because she is pretty.
Beauty and the Beast – In which Belle endures an abusive and violent beast in order to redeem him.
Ariel – who gives up her voice to win the prince with her body.
Mulan – who wins the war almost single handed only to return home to be romanced.
Laura Mulvey studied cinema films and developed the concept of the Male Gaze to describe how the camera lens eyed up the female characters for the sexual viewing pleasure of men.
The Male Gaze occurs when the camera focuses on women’s bodies, especially breasts, bums and things, and spends too long lingering on these areas when it isn’t necessary.
The male gaze of the camera puts the audience in the perspective of the heterosexual men – woman are displayed as a sexual object for both the characters in the film and the spectator – thus the man emerges as the dominant force and the woman is passive under the active (sexual) gaze of the man.
The overall effect of this is that women become objectified as sex objects, rather than being represented as whole people.
Mulvey argued that the Male Gaze occurred in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera.
Video summarizing all of the above:
This is a very useful vodcast outlining the classic theories of the poor representation of women in the media historically:
Changes to the representations of women?
The roles of women in society have changed considerably since these historical analyses of women’s representations: since the 1970s women now occupy a much wider range of roles and equality with men.
David Gauntlett in ‘Media Gender and Identity’ argues that there has been an increase in the diversity of representations and roles of women in the media since the 1970s, and a corresponding decrease in stereotypical representations, which broadly reflects wider social changes.
The representation of women in films
There have been several films in recent decades with ‘strong’ lead female characters who are fierce, tough and resourceful, and thus arguably subvert hegemonic concepts of masculinity. Arguably a watershed moment in this was the 1979 film ‘Alien’ in which the female lead character Ripley outlives her male colleagues and ultimately kills the Alien threat.
Since then a number of female heroines have featured as the lead characters in various action movies such Terminator 2, the Tomb Raider films, Kill Bill, and The Hunger Games.
However, rather than subverting hegemonic concepts of masculinity, it could be argued that such films still perpetuate the ‘beauty myth’ as all the above lead female characters are slim and attractive.
The Bechdel Test
The Bechdel Test is a simple test which presents a quantitative analysis of the representation of women in relation to men in film. To pass the test a film has to pass three tests…
It has to have at least two (named) women in it
Who talk to each other
Above something other than a man
The website above allows you to search for films which passed the test by year, and there is clear evidence that female characters are more visible and independent year on year, but there are still many films which do not pass this simple basic test.
The representation of women in Game of Thrones
At first glance, there seem to be a number of positive female characters in Game of Thrones – the assassin and ultimate killer of the Ice King Arya Stark being the most stand-out example, with other positive female characters including Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Sansa Stark (once she gets through her abusive relationship).
However, various feminist commentators have argued that all of these positive representations are let down by the end of series eight with Brienne falling apart emotionally because of her love for Jamie Lannister, Daenerys literally going mad, Sansa apparently being strong because of her previous abusive relationship (rather than in spite of it), and with all the anonymous women cowering in the crypt during the battle with the Ice King, while all the anonymous men are outside fighting.
A further Feminist argument is that all of these women are portrayed as strong individuals who are strong because they adopt male characteristics, and ultimately it is male violence which wins the day rather than more diverse forms of feminine power.
Compared to 2010 data, the number of women sources as a proportion of all sources, had decreased by 3 per cent.
Women continued to remain largely confined to the sphere of the private, emotional and subjective, while men still dominate the sphere of the public, rational and objective.
Women were significantly under-represented in hard news stories and in all the authoritative, professional and elite source occupational categories and are, instead, significantly over-represented as voices of the general, public (homemaker, parent, student, child) and in the occupational groups most associated with ‘women’s work’, such as health and social and childcare worker, office or service industry worker.
Looking at the function women performed in stories, their contribution as experts (20%) and spokespeople (25%) were low, instead, they were mostly called upon to voice popular opinion (54%) or speak from their personal experience including as eye-witnesses or speak from their own subject position.
The persistence of the Beauty Myth?
Tebbel (2000) argues that women are under more pressure than ever before to conform to the Beauty Myth. She argues that the body and faces of real women have been symbolically annihilated, replaced by computer manipulated, airbrushed, artificially images.
Killborn argues that media representations present women as ‘mannequins’ – size zero, tall and thin, and with perfect blemish-free skin.
Orbach further argues that the media continues to associate slimness with health, happiness, success and popularity
The representations of women in advertising
Some recent evidence seems to challenge the persistence of the Beauty Myth….
There seems to have been progress in this area in recent years. In 2015, Protein World launched its ‘Beach Body Ready’ advertising campaign, and while this clearly reinforced the Beauty Myth stereotype, it prompted a significant backlash with several of the advertisements being vandalised, and many women posting images of their ordinary bodies on social media as a criticism of the overt body shaming involved with Protein World’s advert.
Since 2015, there has been an increase in the diversity of representations of women in advertising, for example:
Dove‘s Real Beauty‘ campaign72 featured a diverse range of body shapes and ethnicities.
Sport England has been running its successful ‘This Girl Can‘ campaign since 2015, which has since evolved into the ‘fit got real’ campaign:
Finally, UN women has recently launched its ‘Unstereotype Alliance‘, which challenges gender stereotypes in advertising on a global scale. Supporters of this initiative include advertising industry companies such as Unilever, P&G, WPP, Diageo, Google and Facebook.
Signposting and Related Posts
This material was produced primarily for A-level sociology students studying The Media option as their topic option, but it should also be of interest to media studies students.
57 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within the sociology of the media
Short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – three examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ questions and three of the 10 mark ‘analyse’ with item questions, all take from the specimen paper and the 2017/2018 exam papers.
19 mind maps in pdf and png format – covering most sub-topics within the sociology of the media.
Three essays and essay plans, taken from the specimen paper and 2017 and 2018 exam papers.