UC President’s Victory Shadowed by Sexist Media
Last week when the Los Angeles Times reported that the University of California (UC) system will soon be led by a woman, we were ready to cheer. For the first time in its 145-year history, UC will have a woman at the helm. Janet Napolitano, the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, will head the 10-campus system.
It’s exciting news for California, higher education, and those interested in women’s leadership. But the celebration was dampened by a few lines near the bottom of the article:
Napolitano, who is unmarried and has no children, underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer in 2000, just weeks before she addressed the Democratic National Convention.
How interesting that the Times decided that Napolitano’s marital status, lack of children, and breasts were relevant to this announcement. A similar announcement in the Times just two months before reported on five new California State University presidents. That article said nothing about each president’s family or health status. Instead, it’s filled with biographical information like past employment and education history.
Then again, that article was about five men.
So yes, we’re cheering for this appointment. Napolitano will join a list of former UC women who have broken the glass ceiling. In 2005, the University of California, Santa Cruz, opened its doors to the youngest-ever UC chancellor, Denice Denton. Denton took on the role at the age of 45 and was noted for being the first openly gay chancellor in the UC system. Eighteen years prior to Denton’s appointment, Barbara Uehling made history as the first woman in the United States to lead a land-grant university, at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But the small number of women in leadership roles does not explain or excuse the fact that the Times and countless other media outlets have been accused of sexism. Articles about women do not need to mention a woman’s hairstyle, clothing choices, or family life when the topic has nothing to do with these things.
Of course, these sexist stories are only a symptom of the double standards we see in our culture — standards that try to strip women leaders of their credibility and power. While we and our allies, male and female, will continue to build the pipeline for women in leadership, we hope that the media will join us in this effort by thinking twice about how it portrays women.