Three-D Issue 28: Women leaders and the pitfalls of ‘going personal’

Research into news coverage of election campaigns in the last twenty years shows that despite a number of key political changes, several key features remain consistent. News is often dominated by process stories about which parties are most likely to win, and women tend to be marginalised from substantive political discussions. This election will be particularly interesting from this perspective because for the first time since 1987, the election is being contested by a female Prime Minister.

Thus far the Conservatives’ media strategy has been to foreground Theresa May and present her as competent and secure choice for Prime Minister. Given the relative strength of her personal approval ratings compared to her main opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, this might seem an obvious approach, but as previous research has shown, presidentialised campaigns are fraught with danger for women leaders. The main risk is reinforcing stereotypical assumptions about the incompatibility between traditional understandings of femininity and conventional ideals of political leadership. One example of personalised coverage which demonstrates these risks was the Daily Mail’s now infamous ‘Legs-it-gate’ front page, where journalists chose to focus on the physical attributes of the two most powerful women in the UK, May and Nicola Sturgeon, rather than the substance of their policy discussions.

There seems to be little evidence that the Conservatives are concerned about these dangers. May even appeared alongside her husband on The One Show on BBC1. This somewhat awkward interview avoided policy discussion altogether and focused primarily on aspects of their personal lives and relationship. The aim of the interview may have been to show a softer, more human side to the Prime Minister who may want to reassure voters that she is just like them. However, the exploration of the May’s division of domestic chores into ‘boy and girl jobs’ might be risky for a woman seeking to convince voters of her credentials in the public sphere. This contrasts markedly with May’s reluctance to participate in televised leaders’ debates. Although such debates are often seen as highly masculinised competitions, where leaders pit their intellectual strength and wit against one another – much like Prime Minister’s Questions – the 2015 debates featured an array of women leaders, and many performed well in this environment. It seems strange that May would emphasise her personal life over her debating prowess given that she is asking voters to evaluate her experience and competence.

Evidence from Loughborough University’s audit of press and broadcast coverage of the campaign demonstrates the extent of the media strategy’s success in terms of the amount of coverage May is receiving. My own analysis of five news websites (conducted with Rosalynd Southern) corroborates this data. During the first three weeks of the campaign, May appeared in 34.3% of all news items. The next closest campaigners were Nicola Sturgeon and Labour’s Emily Thornberry who made 15 appearances each. In 2015 Sturgeon was the most prominent woman in election coverage, accounting for around a third of all appearances by women. Now that the incumbent Prime Minister is also a woman, it remains to be seen how far the presence of prominent female political campaigners will result in the marginalisation of other female sources who, if given the chance, could provide a diverse range of political perspectives and expertise.

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