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Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Albright College senior Kelsey Zenna analyzed the gender bias in the media’s coverage of the 2008 presidential election, questioning if and when a woman will break the glass ceiling to reach the White House. Zenna presented her findings at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

By Hilary Bentman

At no other time in history has a woman been closer to the White House than in 2008.

Former First Lady and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton nearly won the Democratic nomination, while Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, plucked from relative obscurity, stood poised to serve as Sen. John McCain’s vice president had the Republican ticket been successful.

In the end, history was made another way: More than 140 years after the abolishment of slavery, Sen. Barack Obama became the first African-American commander-in-chief.

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Kelsey Zenna '14 (center) with her fellow Albrightians who presented research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of Kentucky.

While the 2008 election appeared groundbreaking on the surface, in reality it was fraught with age-old gender biases, said Albright College communications and political science major Kelsey Zenna ’14, who, for her honors thesis, analyzed the media’s coverage of the campaign.

“Gender bias is a very tangible issue. We downplay it because we don’t always see it. But the trends are obvious,” said Zenna, who presented her work, “Moving toward Madam President: The Glass Ceiling and Gender Bias in the Media,” at the prestigious National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of Kentucky, April 3 to 5. Zenna was one of five Albright students to present research at NCUR.

First drawn to the issue through television shows like Scandal and The West Wing, Zenna turned her attention to real-life politics, examining 100 newspaper articles covering the 2008 election from five geographic regions around the country.

Questions, she soon discovered, were raised of both Palin and Clinton that would never have been asked of their male counterparts.

  • Was Palin a “Caribou Barbie” -- too pretty, perky and plastic for the White House?
  • Was Clinton too aggressive and masculine in her pantsuits?
  • Could Palin balance motherhood and her political duties, especially after it was revealed her teenage daughter was pregnant?
  • Was a woman even tough enough to make the difficult decisions the office demands?

Zenna also looked at nine satirical news parodies from Saturday Night Live, The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which had significant sway with younger voters.

“This is where her generation is getting their news – The Daily Show, Colbert, and, even worse, online sources where you don’t know where the information is coming from,” said Margaret Rakus, chair of the communications department and one of Zenna’s thesis advisers.

After conducting both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the articles and skits, Zenna concluded that the most prevalent trends in the election coverage were the objectification of female candidates, how Palin’s role as mother affected her campaign, and the double-standard female politicians must combat when acting assertive or ambitious. 

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Zenna presents her research at NCUR on “Moving toward Madam President: The Glass Ceiling and Gender Bias in the Media."

“There was a complete objectification of Palin,” said Zenna. “She was 44, super-fit and good-looking. Her personality was dubbed ‘feisty.’ You’d never hear a male called ‘feisty.’”

With Clinton, Zenna added, “it was the pantsuit, trying to fit in with the old boys’ club. She was portrayed as a woman betrayed by the country.”

Kate Lehman, Ph.D., associate professor of communications and Zenna’s thesis adviser, called her student “skilled at reading between the lines of articles, what they are and are not saying, and drawing connections.”

The gender bias Zenna found was, at times, subtle – as when news organizations used only Palin and Clinton’s first names in headlines. At other times, it was blatant, as a plethora of features focused on the female candidates’ clothing, hairstyle and eyeglasses – a level of attention and scrutiny not given to male candidates, said Zenna.

Zenna also found that quotations were erroneously attributed to Palin, including the infamous line “I can see Russia from my house.” While parody shows like SNL poked fun at the exaggerated media coverage, they ended up contributing to it.

“Kelsey is really good at articulating the core issues of why we care about gender bias in political coverage,” said Lehman. “The 2008 election is still important to study, as it illustrates the barriers facing female candidates.”

Gender-driven issues could certainly be front and center again, as Clinton seems poised to make another run for the White House in 2016. But the question remains: Can a woman break the glass ceiling?

Zenna believes the country will have a Hispanic male leader before a woman, particularly as the parties look to appeal to this growing demographic. She points to the 2012 presidential election as a major step backward for women, as the GOP responded to the problems of 2008 by running an all-white, male ticket with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. And Romney’s infamous comment about “binders full of women,” made during one of the debates, did not help the Republican’s female appeal, said Zenna. The comment referred to Romney’s efforts as Massachusetts governor to find more qualified women to serve in his cabinet.

“We’re definitely moving toward [a female president], but it’s coming down to the issues,” said Zenna. “So many other nations have had female leaders. We’re so resistant to changing. America is so focused on personal lives and celebrity.”

After graduation, Zenna hopes to work for a women’s rights lobby or nonprofit organization in New York or Washington, D.C.

 

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