“Sexy” women at work? – Sunday Independent, Daily Sun

Date: September 15, 2011
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Name of articles: “Big-rig sisters in for the long haul”, “She’s a real high flier: Sky’s the limit for this sexy young pilot”

Name of journalist: Nathi Olifant, Mkhuseli Sizani

Name of publication: Sunday Independent, Daily Sun

Date: 7 August 2011, 24 August 2011

Country: South Africa

Theme: Business Unusual

Skills: Language, perspective, headline

Genre: News

GEM Classification: Subtle stereotype

Women continue to challenge the stereotype that a woman’s place is in the kitchen by breaking boundaries in the workplace. Many choose “unusual” career paths that tend to be dominated by men. While there might be challenges to working in these jobs, women prove that they excel in these positions. They make significant contributions to society in these ways, but the media rarely reports on their successes. It is only on special occasions such as Women’s Month that South African media report on these noteworthy issues. This case study analyses two examples of “Business Unusual” reporting in two newspapers, the Daily Sun and the Sunday Independent. While articles of this sort challenge conventional stereotypes about women’s work and highlights the way that women can excel in these roles, these articles perpetuates subtle stereotypes about women.

Daily Sun: “She is a real high flier: Sky’s the limit for this sexy young pilot” is the headline for this article. The phrase “a real high flier” conveys the image of a successful female pilot, but the second part of the headline denigrates this positive representation. The use of the word “sexy” to describe the young pilot is unnecessary because her physical appearance is unrelated to her profession. Hence, the word “sexy” is irrelevant and out of context in the headline. The use of this word conveys the subtle stereotype that women are only valuable for their outer beauty and not for their qualifications or careers. This headline emphasises the physical appearance of a successful woman rather on reporting on the success itself.

Sunday Independent: “Big-rig sisters in for the long haul” is a more appropriate headline. It focuses on the ability and capacity of women who are making inroads in the male-dominated industry of trucking. Rather than focusing on their outer appearance, this headline suggests that women can take part in what the society sees as “men’s” jobs equally and successfully.

Daily Sun: Two female sources were quoted in the story: Oyama Matomela, the young pilot herself and Thandiswa Marawu, an expert in the piloting profession. Although no male source was quoted in the story, the use of sources in this article are fair because Matomela is the main character of the story and Maravu is an expert whose opinion is on the subject is valued.

Sunday Independent: The journalist used four female sources and one male source. Since the story is about women’s success, it is acceptable to let them tell their own stories with their own voices. This use of a primary source adds credibility to the story. Further, the only male source interviewed is an expert on the subject, which adds value to the story.

Overall, there is no majorly sexiest language or language that conveys stereotypes in both articles. The articles show that women can successfully undertake what society perceives to be men’s work. However, both writers emphasise and highlight the word “sexy” to describe the successful women. This word is irrelevant and out of context because in professional circles such as piloting and truck driving, intelligence and courage determine a woman’s success, not sexiness. As Matomela of the Daily Sun article states, “perseverance, courage and discipline were keys to my success”. The only instance in which it is fair to use the word “sexy” is when it comes from the women sources themselves. In the Sunday Independent article, Makha says, “You can be a truck driver and be sexy at the same time.” In this instance, she is challenging the stereotype that a woman has to take on masculine traits in order to be a driver. She emphasises that it is possible to be feminine and work in this male-dominated job, which some people may not expect.

Visual images
Both stories are accompanied by pictures that show the women in their respective work places; Matomela stands at the airfield with aeroplanes in the background, while Khumalo and Makha stand next to a large delivery truck. Both pictures are relevant to the story and portray these successful women working as professionals in their respective environments.

Story angle and perspective
Both articles focused on the successful working women. Apart from making their voices dominate in the stories, authors of the articles further included the voices of the experts to give their independent views about the women and the great work they are doing. The Sunday Independent article highlights the fact that the women truck drivers are sometimes looked down upon by men and that gaining respect from male colleagues has been difficult. This is an educational element of the article that tells the reader more work needs to be done to change the attitudes and ideas men have about what work women do. Overall, the stories put across the impression that women can equally do what men do and sex is not in any way a limiting factor in pursuing a particular career. This is particularly inspiring for girls and young women who aspire to do succeed in the working world.

Training exercises:
– If you wrote the two articles, what would be your headlines? Share your ideas with the class.
– How can “Business Unusual” reporting help to achieve gender equality as espoused in the media provisions of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development?
– Discuss how a gender aware story can still fall into the trap of using sexist or stereotypical language.

Other training resources:

Business Unusual supplement – South Africa by Colleen Lowe Morna, Deborah Walter,Trevor Davies (Eds)

Gender and Media Progress Study by Colleen Lowe Morna, Thabani Mpofu, Danny Glenwright (Eds)

Case study: “For some women in business, the sky is the limit”

Case study: “Masaai men make money braiding women’s hair”

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