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Column: Vermont media must end gender bias in its coverage of women

Published: 1/28/2021 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 1/28/2021 10:10:03 PM

Vermont is the only state in the nation that has never elected a woman to Congress. Only one woman has served as governor. We have never elected a woman of color to any legislative leadership position or statewide office. This is our story, and it casts a long shadow on our nationally perceived status as a leader on issues of equality.

This month, three legislative leaders were sworn into office: our lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate. The lieutenant governor and speaker are the fourth women to hold their respective offices, and the president pro tempore is the very first woman. This is cause for celebration.

Yet, the success of these women is not because the Vermont political system has eliminated sexism and misogyny. They succeeded in spite of the persistence of prejudice, harmful stereotypes and biased thinking that permeates most aspects of women’s lives.

There are many factors that contribute to the race and gender disparity at the highest levels of power. The past few years have brought a reckoning on issues of racism and sexism. In many of our lives we are having conversations with our families, co-workers and friends about the impact of these systemic issues. We know this — to achieve a more equitable political system, we must examine all factors that contribute to inequitable power dynamics. The press is but one factor, and we write this letter in the hope of starting a dialogue about this important issue.

News organizations play an essential role in shaping the way the public perceives issues, state agencies, elected officials and candidates. As traditional news sources continue to diminish in Vermont, the remaining organizations are all the more influential in shaping Vermonters’ ideas and understanding of government and politics. The public relies on reporters and editors to distill massive amounts of information the average citizen can never hope to collect or digest. With its ability to mold public perception, the press serves just as important a function in our democracy as representative government.

This year an unprecedented number of women ran for president, forcing a discussion on the degree to which racism, sexism and misogyny continue to block women from reaching the highest levels of elected office. Despite the fact that the issue of gender bias has recently been prominently acknowledged, gendered tropes and prejudices continue to permeate coverage of women public figures. Just last month, in the column on Dr. Jill Biden, we saw an example of the way the national press diminishes professional women’s accomplishments and questions their competence and legitimacy as leaders.

Throughout the last election cycle the national press wrote extensively on women’s “electability” — a mythic, unmeasurable, subjective quality. This has perpetuated a pervasive and false narrative that women cannot serve in higher elective offices and perhaps should not aspire to those positions.

We are fortunate in Vermont to have a trustworthy and ethical press corps — many of whom continue in this work out of a true commitment to fairness and public education, and our democracy is stronger because of your work. That being said, we respectfully invite you to consider the following:

■ Vermont’s full-time political reporters and columnists are almost all male and all white. A more diverse press corps leads to more inclusive reporting. A broader range of lived experiences in the press corps can influence how the news is reported: who is interviewed, what questions are asked, and what perspective is missing.

■ Who is quoted matters. While women outnumber men among those who serve as chairs of House and Senate committees, in news stories quoting legislators, male legislators are quoted 56% of the time while women legislators are quoted 44% of the time. Outside political “experts” quoted in stories are almost always former male politicians or male political science professors.

■ It is no longer acceptable to focus on women’s appearances. Women candidates’ appearances are discussed at length, including their height, weight and clothing style. This year, a series of candidate profiles highlighted a woman candidate’s “youthful and petite appearance” and her “bulbous cheek bones and shockingly flawless skin.” Her male opponent, in contrast, was described with dignity as a “classic northern New England politician.”

■ Women candidates for higher office have been described as “too aggressive” or “too shrill,” while their male counterparts are described as “bold,” and there is no mention of tone of voice.

■ Disagreements between women have been described as “catfights.” This is a demeaning description of a disagreement between professional adult policymakers or political candidates.

■ An elected leader supported the paid family leave bill and a columnist wrote that she supported this policy because she was “entirely female” and the bill assisted Vermont women. This reductive column intimated the policy agenda of this official was nothing more than a whim based on her gender.

This year, for the first time in the history of our state, women hold all three top legislative leadership positions. There is one woman of color in the Senate, and the very first trans woman state representative. Continuing to allow outdated evaluations of their success and worth in terms of stereotypes and casual bias no longer serves as credible coverage.

This historic legislative session gives an opportunity to reflect on how we can address gender bias now and in the future. Women will continue to run for office at all levels in Vermont. The first woman elected to federal office in Vermont will be a pioneer. As we approach the breaking of that glass ceiling, we have the opportunity to discuss these issues without the context of any specific candidate.

Stereotypes, bias and prejudice are always more than the isolated experience of women alone. Press coverage that uses, often unintentionally, dated stereotypical language similarly harms other marginalized groups. As leaders and activists in our own communities, we are committed to fostering a truly equitable political system that is much more diverse and inclusive.

We hope you will engage in internal conversations within your organizations about the issues of sexism, gender bias and racism in reporting, and commit to the challenging work of reckoning with the unconscious biases that affect our public narratives every day. We have the greatest respect for your work, your dedication to factual and ethical reporting, and hope to work with you toward this goal.

Natalie Silver is a law student, former campaign manager for Attorney General TJ Donovan and served on the campaign staff for Gov. Peter Shumlin. Ashley Moore is former director of the Main Street Alliance and currently serves as director of the Alliance for a Better Vermont. This piece was also signed by: Michele Asch, vice president, leadership and organizational development, Twincraft Skincare; Julia Barnes, founder, JPBK Consulting; Rhoni Basden, executive director, Vermont Works for Women; Joey Bergstein, CEO, Seventh Generation; Cary Brown, executive director, Vermont Commission on Women; Eliza Cain and Randy George, co-owners, Red Hen Baking Co.; Dennise Casey, president, Casey Inc.; Dr. Harry Chen; Brenda Churchill; member of the liaison team LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont and member of the executive committee of the Vermont Democratic Party; Clarence E. Davis; Gov. Howard Dean; Erica Metzger Hare, chief financial officer, Aspire Living & Learning, member of the Vermont Commission on Women and co-founder, ElevateHer VT; Patricia Noel Johnson MS, RN; Kelly Klein and Ricky Klein, co-owners, Groennfell Meadery; Gov. Madeleine Kunin; Lisa Kunin; Joan Lenes, board chair, Emerge Vermont; Lucy Leriche, vice president of Public Policy,Vermont, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England; Katherine Levasseur; Neale Lunderville, president and CEO, VGS; Alex Maclean, partner, Leonine Public Affairs; Cate MacLachlan; Sascha Mayer, CEO, Mamava; Kiah Morris, commissioner, Vermont Commission on Women; Mari McClure, president and CEO, Green Mountain Power; Liz Miller; Eric Miller; Heidi Mohlman Tringe, member, Vermont Commission on Women, co-founder, ElevateHer VT, and Partner, MMR LLC; Tabitha Moore; Dr. Etan Nasreddin-Longo, co-director of Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs and Racial Equity Advisor, Vermont State Police, and chair of the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems Advisory Panel; Elizabeth Novotny Esq., former president of the Vermont Bar Association; Jessica Nordhaus, director, Change The Story VT; David Nunnikhoven, owner, Grandma Miller’s Pies and Pastries; Jacob B. Perkinson Esq.; Jill Pfenning, vice president, financial and regulatory, and general counsel at VGS; Ernie Pomerleau, president, Pomerleau Real Estate; Mary Powell, clean energy leader and co-founder of Spot the Dog; Aly Richards, CEO, Let’s Grow Kids; Drusilla Roessle; Andrew Savage, vice president and founding team at Lime; Gov. Peter Shumlin; Dan Smith, president and CEO, Vermont Community Foundation; Meg Smith, Vermont Women’s Fund; Shapleigh Smith Jr.; Win Smith, chairman and CEO, Summit Ventures; Tom Torti, CEO, Lake Champlain Opportunity Fund; Bor Yang, executive director, Vermont Human Rights Commission.

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