It’s long been known that the way media portrays women – as everything from moms to successful professionals – shapes the world-views of girls as they grow up and also influences their future career choices.
But what happens after girls become young adults? Do media portrayals still have an impact on how young women see themselves? And do positive images of women inspire them to succeed?
In a paper published in the August 2014 issue of the journal Communication Research, a team of researchers from Ohio State University’s School of Communications report findings from a study that showed when even when women are portrayed in contemporary media as successful professionals, those images can produce negative responses in young females, with some questioning their chances for future success.
For their study, a group of female college students were shown different ways women were depicted in magazines. Some were shown images that emphasized beauty and looks. Others saw women as caretakers or professional positions. A control group was shown neutral images that contained no people.
The team found that the magazine images that showed women in professional roles or as caretakers caused some of the study subjects to express concerns about their futures. Images meant to showcase women as beauty ideals caused less negative responses.
The results of this study align with theories that suggest people make judgments about themselves based on how they think they compare to others. For some, images of women in top management positions or as “supermoms” made them feel inadequate about themselves and the likelihood of their future successes.
To explain why images of feminine beauty were less troubling to the young women who took part in the study, researchers suggest that those portrayals might have served as a distraction “from more serious aspects” of their lives as well as things they over which they have more control . Fixing your hair is much easier than finding a high paying job.
The lesson to researchers—and others who communicate to or try to shape the media coverage of women—is that the more that the more they are represented “in manager and homemaker roles while emphasizing female beauty less, young women may gain a more favorable impression of their future opportunities in these roles.”
Communication Research June 2013
Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, Ashley R. Kennard, Axel Westerwick, Laura E. Willis, Yuan Gong, The Ohio State University