When Americans turn on their televisions to watch the nightly news—assuming that they still do—why do they prefer to listen to the delivery of the day’s headlines in a male voice? In 2011, when CBS replaced Katie Couric, America’s sweetheart, with a male colleague as the nightly news anchor, the program gained one million viewers. Reporter Sheila Weller tells the surprising story in her new non-fiction book, The News Sorority.
A recent review of Weller’s book in the Wall Street Journal describes a depressing world of high heels and makeup where women are encouraged to stay thin and beautiful to get to the top, a world where a woman’s appearance is analogous to her “likability” (i.e. success). If CBS had gained only a few thousand viewers, I could chalk it up to personality preference. But one million viewers says something more ominous to me. It means that Americans still don’t recognize a female voice as one of authority.
Of course we do have female news anchors on Public Television and some very senior reporters on both network nightly news and National Public Radio. But still the absurd irony of the network news report being delivered by a male anchor cannot be missed: a US female soldier being wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, German President Angela Merkel racing to Russia to negotiate a truce for Ukraine, or perhaps the Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, commenting about interest rates and income inequality. We have negotiated our way to all these positions of authority, and yet, in the strongest representation of credibility, we willingly choose a man to deliver our news.
What does it take for women to be recognized as a voice of authority?
Being a female leader, it seems to me, is a witch’s brew, a mystical concoction of chemistry, timing, and the indefinable “likability.” Too little conviction and you’re soft, but too much and you are a bitch, a ballbuster. We are confined to roles that we never got a chance to define. These roles, these labels, prevent us from identifying with our own individual voices of authority.
In America, a lack of acknowledgment for female authority manifests itself in pernicious ways, everything from unequal pay for similar jobs, to the ever present and absurd use of sexual imagery and female objectification in marketing campaigns for products as mundane as a cheeseburger.
But the issue spreads across the globe. How else do we explain the disturbing frequency of sexual violence and harassment towards women that sparked the international explosion of #YesAllWoman on Twitter, or the appalling lack of access to quality reproductive care and birth control—an issue the United Nations addressed in the UNFPA’s 2012 Annual Report by finally calling contraception a universal human right.
Perhaps the answer lies in maturity. After all, American women have had voting rights for less than one hundred years. But what are we waiting for? Why do we play in to the objectifying advertisements that alienate us from our own sense of self? Why do we abide by dress codes and standards that perpetuate male attitudes of femininity and feminine sexuality?
The first step is acknowledgment, believing that the sound of our voice means something. A new article from Time opines that a major step forward for feminism and for all women will be to find our voice, “…to create and circulate powerful narratives, and to renew them again and again and again.”
What better way to encourage young women to share their narrative and find their voice than offering a role model with a strong, credible voice of authority? It may not be the final answer, but a female news anchor is a damn good place to start.