The exception, the bad mother, the fighter – Unconscious bias in the media portrayal of female top managers

March 8, 2020 – The influence of the media on public opinion is undisputed. Our stance on equal rights for men and women and the importance we attach to this topic in the public debate is no exception in this respect. On International Women's Day we therefore ask ourselves: How are female managers portrayed in Germany's leading media? And what impact do unconscious biases and clichés have on us? Six in-depth interviews with powerful women from both business and journalism and a content analysis of more than 850 articles in Germany's leading media help us shed light on the issue.

Key insights

1. Female top managers are often portrayed as being ‘the exception’ and therefore the media’s interest in the topic tends to be high. Often, individual peculiarities are being highlighted.

2. Women in leadership positions are usually confronted with outdated role models and corresponding social expectations in the media.

3. The physical appearance of women takes up twice as much space in the articles analyzed as that of men. Female managers also believe their physical appearance to be scrutinized more closely.

4. On average, the media discuss women’s family, love and private life or childhood twice as often as for men. Our interview partners have confirmed that their professional contributions are therefore less in the spotlight.

5. Stereotypical “male” leadership qualities are attributed to both sexes – but often come with a more negative connotation when applied to women.

6. In the media, female managers are often the ones who are driving change, while their male colleagues are more likely to be seen as stabilizers.

7. Female top managers see themselves as media role models for other women. Our interview partners encourage female colleagues to deal with the media with confidence and to pursue a clear strategy.

8. The media are considered to have great social responsibility. Our interview partners said, it was also up to the media to question their own bias and break up traditional role models.

On the one hand, this shows how important it is for female managers to use the media to convey their own messages and beliefs. On the other hand, dealing with media representatives requires thorough preparation and agenda setting. Goals and expectations of the conversation should always be kept in mind. Female managers benefit from actively managing their media presence. When being confronted with trivial questions about their looks or on what they are carrying with them in their handbag, they might as well ask the interviewer: “Would you ask a man the same thing?”

Many thanks to Marion Horn, Fränzi Kühne, Janina Kugel, Simone Menne, Tina Müller and Ariane Reinhart for sharing their personal views and experiences.

You can find the complete publication with all findings and interviews (in German) here.



Jan Hiesserich

Hering Schuppener Consulting
T: +49 69 92 18 74-63
M: +49 151 16 23 15 46


About Hering Schuppener

Hering Schuppener Consulting is one of the leading communications consultancies in Continental Europe and the clear market leader in Germany, with offices in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt as well as an office in Brussels. Hering Schuppener has specialized in strategic communications solutions for companies in mission-critical situations such as M&A transactions, IPOs, restructuring and change processes as well as crises. Moreover, the company advises its clients on a continuous basis in reinforcing their reputation and managing their brand, in management and controlling of international communications activities, in issues related to corporate campaigning and corporate affairs, CEO positioning, digital corporate communication and transformation as well as in long-term press and investor relations activities.

Hering Schuppener Consulting, Finsbury und The Glover Park Group (GPG) together form a global strategic partnership. The combination of these three market leaders is one of the few global platforms advising clients across all communication issues leveraging over 500 consultants in 16 offices around the world. The strategic partnership provides combined global practice groups in Capital Markets, Crisis, Corporate Reputation and Public Affairs to give clients greater cross-market access and the best and most relevant strategic counsel. This strategic advice includes all available communication channels including an integrated digital offering. Finsbury, Hering Schuppener and The Glover Park Group are specialized operating companies of WPP, the world’s largest communications services group.

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