July 28, 2010 — In the early 1970s, I was among a handful of women in Harvard’s M.B.A. program. One day in class, we were assigned a case study on marketing floor wax. I’ll never forget it: all of my male classmates looked to me for advice!
The assumption was that because I was a woman, I would know something about waxing a floor. They were surprised when I said I didn’t. Was this a harmless case of stereotyping? Maybe. But I was offended.
More than 30 years later, I am still upset by blatant stereotyping—especially in the media. While men perform more housework today than ever before, some newspapers and magazines continue to portray women as mere risk-averse cleaner-uppers.
Last month, for instance, Jullia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister, replacing Kevin Rudd as head of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Sexist headlines followed. “Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Messy ALP Clean Up,” charged the Daily Telegraph. “Gillard Must Mop Up Swan's Mess,” wrote the Business Spectator, referring to Treasurer Wayne Swan.
In 2008, Iceland’s appointment of two women to rebuild the country’s shattered banking system garnered similar headlines. “Iceland Appoints Women to Clean Up ‘Male Mess,’” said the Financial Times. The Guardian proffered: “Women Clean Up the Bankers' Mess.”
American media also stereotype. In May, Time magazine featured on its cover three stern-faced women in business suits with the text: “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street: The women charged with cleaning up the mess.” While the article is well-written, the cover seems to imply that FDIC chair Sheila Bair, SEC chair Mary Schapiro and TARP chair Elizabeth Warren are humorless cleaners. And last year ForbesWoman ran an article about financial oversight headlined, “Cleaning Crew: The Women Who are Fixing the Financial Mess.” It featured a picture of a woman in business attire and rubber gloves cleaning up a chalkboard with a watery sponge.
These images reminded me of sexist advertisements from the 1960s. But it’s 2010, people—let’s act like it!
It’s easy to fall back on old stereotypes, but if you take a minute to engage your brain, you’ll find that less offensive and more accurate terms for female leaders exist. To do otherwise is just plain sexist. Is “cleaning up” a leadership trait? I don’t think so.