Despite the attention that many female politicians, activists, and business leaders have attempted to bring to a multitude of issues, including women's issues, discussions of their actions habitually bear the reminder that it was a woman who acted. Two of the latest media darlings of successful women — Marissa Mayer and Wendy Davis — have highlighted anew their femininity by posing for spreads in Vogue magazine. While some might insist there's no such thing as bad press, such spreads are likely to be detrimental to the image of women.
Marissa Mayer is currently the CEO of Yahoo, and previously worked at Google. Mayer made headlines when she ended Yahoo's work from home programs and took a famously short maternity leave. She is also the subject of the September 2013 Vogue magazine article "Yahoo's Marissa Mayer: Hail to the Chief."
Wendy Davis is a Texas state senator who staged a 12-hour filibuster to block anti-abortion legislation in Texas. She is also noted for having been a single mother, attending Harvard Law School, and being considered a contender for the Texas governor's office. Her article in the September Vogue is "Stand and Deliver: After Her 12-Hour Filibuster, How Far Will Texas Senator Wendy Davis Run?"
While these articles glowingly praise these women and shine a well-deserved spotlight on what Mayer and Davis have achieved, the pieces also emphasize appearance and apparel. The Mayer article described her interview outfit in detail and included a photo spread for just her clothes. Davis gets similar treatment. Even when recounting interactions with voters, the writer notes the brands and fabrics of Davis's clothes. As much might be expected from a fashion magazine, but it can be limiting for a woman's success.
Research has found that, for women, references to appearances and fashion in news coverage, despite whatever successes or behaviors the news coverage purportedly considers, ultimately detract from public perceptions of that woman and her achievement. According to a NameItChangeIt study, "Appearance coverage damages voters' perceptions of the woman candidate on all key traits we tested, but the greatest average losses are on being in touch, being likeable, confident, effective, and qualified." It's not that women can't wear nice clothes. Rather, intense media coverage of female candidates' appearance damages their perception.
So, despite the efforts Vogue may have been making to positively portray these women and thereby help them and their agendas and the efforts these women might be making with the press to further their business, political, or personal goals, the coverage is not necessarily beneficial to them. By focusing, in its coverage of women, on the appearances and fashions of those women, the media draws away from the seriousness of the women's work. It also diminishes both their successes in the past and those women's chances for future success by damaging their qualification and suitability in the public eye. As such, the press does these leaders more harm than good.