The Miss Universe Problem

Posted in 2011 The Gnovis Blog

On September 12, 2011, millions watched as an effervescent Miss Angola, Leila Lopes, was crowned the 2011 Miss Universe in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  The next morning, the International Women in Media Foundation held a panel in Washington, DC, to discuss the findings of their Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media. The panel featured journalists from The Washington Post and Al Jazeera English comparing their own experiences in a male-dominated field, and generally agreed that, despite their achievements, they had a long way to go in the fight for women’s equality. While these two events may seem like polar opposites, it is this very fact through which they are inextricably linked.
The IWMF featured female reporters who frequently venture into the most dangerous situations possible for the sake of telling a good story: embedding themselves with drug gangs in South America, or flying to the Middle East to report on sometimes violent protests there.  The Miss Universe pageant showcased women from 89 countries parading around as various tropical birds and allowing themselves to be scored primarily on their physical appearance.  While some of the contestants have no doubt had stage mothers egging them on for years, many seem genuinely happy doing what they do, as do the female reporters who frequently put themselves in dangerous situations.  The IWMF report findings are not altogether surprising; they show that males outnumber females in the newsroom by almost 2:1, and females are rarely found in top-level management positions.  Females in the media also receive lower salaries for playing the same role as their male counterparts.

The efforts of those individuals who worked tirelessly to produce the IWMF report and others like it are certainly valiant, but what effect do they really have?  For women to be treated equally in society, society itself has to change- a feat that seems unlikely anytime soon.  Much attention in the report was played to the “glass ceiling” effect, which has been studied at length in numerous professions, defined as: “an invisible but nonetheless real barrier that women encounter in the workplace”.  The report finds that women are blocked from advancing to higher levels of employment in almost every country, but makes the important notation that: “the study does not assume that all women in journalism necessarily want to move into top management”. This fact is key to this and other findings, for one cannot always assume that a woman actually wants to advance to a top management role.  Indeed, as a woman is more experienced professionally, she is more likely to be older, and thus have a family she does not want to sacrifice for her career.
Even as some progress is made, such as recently when the first reporters in Tripoli’s Green Square were all women, women have a long way to go before they will have parity with men in the workplace.  With disheartening reports such as the one from the IWMF and the revelation that a record number of women are currently living in poverty, women should be banding together to fight for truly equal rights in the workplace and elsewhere.  But the reason women’s movements don’t get covered in the media is that they are not as organized as many other activist groups.  If women’s groups held marches in the streets as large as the immigrant’s rights group’s demonstrations, would they get more attention and advance their agenda more quickly?  Instead, the fact that women themselves are so divided as a culture has slowed their progress in history.  It is my belief that as long as any portion of the female population remains ambivalent towards feminism, it will struggle to organize itself into a full-grown activist movement.  To reach their equality goals, hard-core feminists and beauty queens alike must first unite and realize they are more similar then they are different.
Photo Credit: Patrick Prather/Miss Universe