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Annual Review of Developmental Psychology

Volume 2, 2020, review article, media and the development of gender role stereotypes.

  • L. Monique Ward 1 , and Petal Grower 1
  • View Affiliations Hide Affiliations Affiliations: Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109, USA; email: [email protected]
  • Vol. 2:177-199 (Volume publication date December 2020) https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-devpsych-051120-010630
  • First published as a Review in Advance on September 15, 2020
  • Copyright © 2020 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved

This review summarizes recent findings (2000–2020) concerning media's contributions to the development of gender stereotypes in children and adolescents. Content analyses document that there continues to be an underrepresentation of women and a misrepresentation of femininity and masculinity in mainstream media, although some positive changes are noted. Concerning the strength of media's impact, findings from three meta-analyses indicate a small but consistent association between frequent television viewing and expressing more stereotypic beliefs about gender. Concerning the nature of these effects, analyses indicate significant connections between young people's screen media use and their general gender role attitudes; their beliefs about the importance of appearance for girls and women; their stereotyping of toys, activities, and occupations; and their support for traditional sexual roles. We offer several approaches for moving this field forward, including incorporating additional theories (e.g., stereotype threat), focusing more on boys and ethnic minority youth, and centering developmental milestones.

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  • Article Type: Review Article

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Gender Representation in The Media

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  • Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
  • Annenberg Inclusion Initiative
  • Women's Media Center

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gender stereotypes in mass media essay

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Gender and Media Representations: A Review of the Literature on Gender Stereotypes, Objectification and Sexualization

Media representations play an important role in producing sociocultural pressures. Despite social and legal progress in civil rights, restrictive gender-based representations appear to be still very pervasive in some contexts. The article explores scientific research on the relationship between media representations and gender stereotypes, objectification and sexualization, focusing on their presence in the cultural context. Results show how stereotyping, objectifying and sexualizing representations appear to be still very common across a number of contexts. Exposure to stereotyping representations appears to strengthen beliefs in gender stereotypes and endorsement of gender role norms, as well as fostering sexism, harassment and violence in men and stifling career-related ambitions in women. Exposure to objectifying and sexualizing representations appears to be associated with the internalization of cultural ideals of appearance, endorsement of sexist attitudes and tolerance of abuse and body shame. In turn, factors associated with exposure to these representations have been linked to detrimental effects on physical and psychological well-being, such as eating disorder symptomatology, increased body surveillance and poorer body image quality of life. However, specificities in the pathways from exposure to detrimental effects on well-being are involved for certain populations that warrant further research.

1. Introduction

As a social category, gender is one of the earliest and most prominent ways people may learn to identify themselves and their peers, the use of gender-based labels becoming apparent in infants as early as 17 months into their life [ 1 ]. Similarly, the development of gender-based heuristics, inferences and rudimentary stereotypes becomes apparent as early as age three [ 2 , 3 ]. Approximately at this age, the development of a person’s gender identity begins [ 4 ]—that is, the process through which a person tends to identify as a man, as a woman or as a vast spectrum of other possibilities (i.e., gender non-conforming, agender, genderfluid, etc.). These processes continue steadily throughout individuals’ lives as they receive and elaborate information about women and men and what it means to belong to either category, drawing from direct and indirect observations, social contact, personal elaborations and cultural representations [ 5 , 6 ]. As a result, social and mental representations of gender are extremely widespread, especially as a strictly binary construct, and can be argued to be ubiquitous in individual and social contexts.

Among the many sources of influence on gender representations, media occupies an important space and its relevance can be assessed across many different phenomena [ 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ]. The ubiquity of media, the chronicity of individuals’ exposure to it and its role in shaping beliefs, attitudes and expectations have made it the subject of scientific attention. In fact, several theories have attempted to explore the mechanisms and psychological processes in which media plays a role, including identity development [ 12 , 13 , 14 ], scripts and schemas [ 15 ], cultivation processes [ 16 , 17 , 18 ] and socialization processes [ 5 , 6 ].

The public interest in the topic of gender has seen a surge in the last 10 years, in part due to social and political movements pushing for gender equality across a number of aspects, including how gender is portrayed in media representations. In the academic field as well, publications mentioning gender in their title, abstract or keywords have more than doubled from 2012 to 2022 [ 19 ], while publications mentioning gender in media representations have registered an even more dramatic increase, tripling in number [ 20 ]. Additionally, the media landscape has had a significant shift in the last decade, with the surge in popularity and subsequent addition of social media websites and apps to most people’s mediatic engagement [ 21 ].

The importance of media use in gender-related aspects, such as beliefs, attitudes, or roles, has been extensively documented. As reported in a recent review of the literature [ 22 ], several meta-analyses [ 17 , 23 , 24 ] showed support for the effects of media use on gender beliefs, finding small but consistent effect sizes. These effects appear to have remained present over the decades [ 25 ].

Particular attention has been given to stereotypical, objectifying and sexualizing representations, as portrayals that paint a restrictive picture of the complexity of human psychology, also producing sociocultural pressures to conform to gender roles and body types.

Gender stereotypes can be defined as an extremely simplified concept of attitudes and behaviors considered normal and appropriate for men and women in a specific culture [ 26 ]. They usually span several different areas of people’s characteristics, such as physical appearance, personality traits, behaviors, social roles and occupations. Stereotypical beliefs about gender may be divided into descriptive (how one perceives a person of a certain gender to be; [ 27 ]), prescriptive (how one perceives a person of a certain gender should be and behave; [ 28 , 29 ]) or proscriptive (how one perceives a person of a certain gender should not be and behave; [ 28 , 29 ]). Their content varies on the individual’s culture of reference [ 30 ], but recurring themes have been observed in western culture, such as stereotypes revolving around communion, agency and competence [ 31 ]. Women have stereotypically been associated with traits revolving around communion (e.g., supportiveness, compassion, expression, warmth), while men have been more stereotypically associated with agency (e.g., ambition, assertiveness, competitiveness, action) or competence (e.g., skill, intelligence). Both men and women may experience social and economic penalties (backlash) if they appear to violate these stereotypes [ 29 , 32 , 33 ].

Objectification can be defined as the viewing or treatment of people as objects. Discussing ways in which people may be objectified, Nussbaum first explored seven dimensions: instrumentality (a tool to be employed for one’s purposes); denial of autonomy (lacking self-determination, or autonomy); inertness (lacking in agency or activity); fungibility (interchangeable with others of the same type); violability (with boundaries lacking integrity and permissible to break into); ownership (possible to own or trade); denial of subjectivity (the person’s feelings or experiences are seen as something that does not need to be considered) [ 34 ].

In its initial definition by Fredrickson and Roberts [ 35 ], objectification theory had been offered as a framework to understand how the pervasive sexual objectification of women’s bodies in the sociocultural context influenced their experiences and posed risks to their mental health—a phenomenon that was believed to have uniquely female connotations. In their model, the authors theorized that a cultural climate of sexual objectification would lead to the internalization of objectification (viewing oneself as a sexual and subordinate object), which would in turn lead to psychological consequences (e.g., body shame, anxiety) and mental health risks (e.g., eating disorders, depression). Due to the pervasiveness of the cultural climate, objectification may be difficult to detect or avoid, and objectification experiences may be perceived as normative.

Sexual objectification, in which a person is reduced to a sexual instrument, can be construed to be a subtype of objectification and, in turn, is often defined as one of the types of sexualization [ 36 ]. As previously discussed by Ward [ 37 ], it should be made clear that the mere presence of sexual content, which may be represented in a positive and healthy way, should not be conflated with sexualized or objectifying representations.

The American Psychological Association’s 2007 report defines sexualization as a series of conditions that stand apart from healthy sexuality, such as when a person’s value is perceived to come mainly from sexual appeal or behavior, when physical attractiveness is equated to sexual attractiveness, when a person is sexually objectified or when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on a person [ 36 ]. Sexualization may involve several different contexts, such as personal, interpersonal, and cultural. Self-sexualization involves treating oneself as a sexual object [ 35 ]. Interpersonal contributions involve being treated as sexual objects by others, such as family or peers [ 38 , 39 ]. Finally, contributions by cultural norms, expectations and values play a part as well, including those spread by media representations [ 36 ]. After this initial definition, sexualization as a term has also been used by some authors (e.g., Zurbriggen & Roberts [ 40 ]) to refer to sexual objectification specifically, while others (e.g., Bigler and colleagues [ 41 ]) stand by the APA report’s broader meaning. In this section, we will explore scientific literature adopting the latter.

These portrayals have been hypothesized to lead to negative effects on people’s well-being on a mental and physical level, as well as bearing partial responsibility for several social issues, such as sexism, gender discrimination and harassment. However, the pathways that lead from an individual’s relationship with media to these detrimental effects can be complex. Furthermore, they seem to involve specificities for men and women, as well as for different sexual orientations. A wealth of publications has been produced on these themes and, to the authors’ knowledge, no recent review has attempted to synthesize their findings.

The present article aims to summarize the state of the art of research on stereotyping, sexualization and objectification in gender and media representations. A focus will be placed on the definitions of these concepts, the media where they occur, and verifying whether any changes over time are detectable or any specificities are present. The possible effects of these representations on people’s well-being will be explored as well.

A search of the literature was conducted on scientific search engines (APA PsycArticles, CINAHL Complete, Education Source, Family Studies Abstracts, Gender Studies Database, MEDLINE, Mental Measurements Yearbook, Sociology Source Ultimate, Violence & Abuse Abstracts, PUBMED, Scopus, Web of Science) to locate the most relevant contributions on the topic of media and gender representation, with a particular focus on stereotypes, objectification and sexualization, their presence in the media and their effects on well-being. Keywords were used to search for literature on the intersection of the main topics: media representation (e.g., media OR representation* OR portrayal*), gender (e.g., gender OR sex OR wom* OR m*n) and stereotypes, objectification and sexualization (e.g., stereotyp*, objectif*, sexualiz*). In some cases, additional keywords were used for the screening of studies on specific media (e.g., television, news, social media). When appropriate, further restrictions were used to screen for studies on effects or consequences (e.g., effect* OR impact* OR consequence* OR influence* OR outcome*). Inclusion criteria were the following: (a) academic articles (b) pertaining to the field of media representations (c) pertaining to gender stereotypes, objectification or sexualization. A dataset of 195 selected relevant papers was created. Thematic analysis was conducted following the guidelines developed by Braun and Clarke [ 42 ], in order to outline patterns of meaning across the reviewed studies. The process was organized into six phases: (1) familiarization with the data; (2) coding; (3) searching for themes; (4) reviewing themes; (5) defining and naming themes; and (6) writing up. After removing duplicates and excluding papers that did not meet the inclusion criteria, a total of 87 articles were included in the results of this review. The findings were discussed among researchers (LR, FS, MNP and TT) until unanimous consensus was reached.

2.1. Stereotypical Portrayals

Gender stereotypes appear to be flexible and responsive to changes in the social environment: consensual beliefs about men’s and women’s attributes have evolved throughout the decades, reflecting changes in women’s participation in the labor force and higher education [ 31 , 43 ]. Perceptions of gender equality in competence and intelligence have sharply risen, and stereotypical perceptions of women show significant changes: perceptions of women’s competence and intelligence have surpassed those relative to men, while the communion aspect appears to have shifted toward being even more polarized on being typical of women. Other aspects, such as perceptions of agency being more typical of men, have remained stable [ 31 ].

Despite these changes, gender representation in the media appears to be frequently skewed toward men’s representation and prominently features gender stereotypes. On a global scale, news coverage appears to mostly feature men, especially when considering representation as expert voices, where women are still underrepresented (24%) despite a rise in coverage in the last 5 years [ 44 ]. Underrepresentation has also been reported in many regional and national contexts, but exact proportions vary significantly in the local context. Male representation has been reported to be greater in several studies, with male characters significantly outnumbering female characters [ 45 ], doing so in male-led and mixed-led shows but not in female-led shows [ 46 ] in children’s television programming—a key source of influence on gender representations. Similar results have been found regarding sports news, whose coverage overwhelmingly focuses on men athletes [ 47 , 48 ] and where women are seldom represented.

Several analyses of television programs have also shown how representations of men and women are very often consistent with gender stereotypes. Girls were often portrayed as focusing more on their appearance [ 45 ], as well as being judged for their appearance [ 49 ]. The same focus on aesthetics was found in sports news coverage, which was starkly different across genders, and tended to focus on women athletes’ appearance, featuring overly simplified descriptions (vs. technical language on coverage of men athletes) [ 48 ]. In addition, coverage of women athletes was more likely in sports perceived to be more feminine or gender-appropriate [ 47 , 48 , 50 ]. Similarly, women in videogames appear to be both underrepresented and less likely to be featured as playable characters, as well as being frequently stereotyped, appearing in the role of someone in need of rescuing, as love interests, or cute and innocent characters [ 51 ]. In advertising as well, gender stereotypes have often been used as a staple technique for creating relatability, but their use may lead to negative cross-gender effects in product marketing [ 52 ] while also possibly furthering social issues. Hust and colleagues found that in alcohol advertisements, belief in gender stereotypes was the most consistent predictor of intentions to sexually coerce, showing significant interaction effects with exposure to highly objectifying portrayals [ 53 ]. Representation in advertising prominently features gender stereotypes, such as depicting men in professional roles more often, while depicting women in non-working, recreational roles, especially in countries that show high gender inequality [ 54 ]. A recent analysis of print ads [ 55 ] confirmed that some stereotypes are still prominent and, in some cases, have shown a resurgence, such as portraying a woman as the queen of the home; the study also found representations of women in positions of empowerment are, however, showing a relative increase in frequency. Public support, combined with market logic, appears to be successfully pushing more progressive portrayals in this field [ 56 ].

Both skewed representation and the presence of stereotypes have been found to lead to several negative effects. Gender-unequal representation has been found to stifle political [ 57 ] and career [ 58 ] ambition, as well as foster organizational discrimination [ 59 ]. Heavy media use may further the belief in gender stereotypes and has been found to be linked to a stronger endorsement of traditional gender roles and norms [ 60 ], which in turn may be linked to a vast number of detrimental health effects. In women, adherence and internalization of traditional gender roles have been linked to greater symptoms of depression and anxiety, a higher likelihood of developing eating disorders, and lower self-esteem and self-efficacy [ 36 , 61 , 62 , 63 ]. In men as well, adherence to traditional masculine norms has been linked to negative mental health outcomes such as depression, psychological distress and substance abuse [ 64 ], while also increasing the perpetration of risky behaviors [ 65 , 66 ] and intimate partner violence [ 65 , 67 ].

2.2. Objectifying Portrayals

Non-sexual objectifying representations appear to have been studied relatively little. They have been found to be common in advertising, where women are often depicted as purely aesthetic models, motionless and decorative [ 68 ]. They may also include using a woman’s body as a supporting object for the advertised product, as a decorative object, as an ornament to draw attention to the ad, or as a prize to be won and associated with the consumption of the advertised product [ 55 ].

The vast majority of the literature has focused on the sexual objectification of women. This type of representation has been reported to be very common in a number of contexts and across different media [ 69 ], and several studies (see Calogero and colleagues’ or Roberts and colleagues’ review [ 69 , 70 ]) have found support for the original model’s pathway [ 35 ]. Following experimental models expanded on the original (e.g., Frederick and colleagues or Roberts and colleagues [ 69 , 71 ]), highlighting the role of factors such as the internalization of lean or muscular ideals of appearance, finding evidence for negative effects on well-being and mental health through the increase in self-objectification and the internalization of cultural ideals of appearance [ 71 , 72 ].

Sexual objectification also appears to be consistently linked to sexism. For both women and men, the perpetration of sexual objectification was significantly associated with hostile and benevolent sexism, as well as the enjoyment of sexualization [ 73 ]. Enjoyment of sexualization, in turn, has been found to be positively associated with hostile sexism in both men and women, positively associated with benevolent sexism in women and negatively in men [ 74 ].

Exposure to objectifying media in men has been found to increase the tendency to engage in sexual coercion and harassment, as well as increasing conformity to gender role norms [ 75 ]. Consistently with the finding that perpetration of objectification may be associated with a greater men’s proclivity for rape and sexual aggression [ 76 ], a study conducted by Hust and colleagues found that exposure to objectifying portrayals of women in alcohol advertising was also a moderator in the relationship between belief in gender stereotypes and intentions to sexually coerce. Specifically, participants who had a stronger belief in gender stereotypes reported stronger intentions to sexually coerce when exposed to slightly objectifying images of women. Highly objectifying images did not yield the same increase—a result interpreted by the authors to mean that highly objectified women were perceived as sexually available and as such less likely to need coercion, while slightly objectified women could be perceived as more likely to need coercion [ 53 ].

Research on objectification has primarily focused on women, in part due to numerous studies suggesting that women are more subject to sexual objectification [ 73 , 77 , 78 , 79 , 80 ], as well as suffering the consequences of sexual objectification more often [ 81 ]. However, sexually objectifying portrayals seem to have a role in producing negative effects on men as well, although with partially different pathways. In men, findings about media appearance pressures on body image appear to be mixed. Previous meta-analyses found either a small average effect [ 82 ] or no significant effect [ 72 ]. A recent study found them to be significantly associated with higher body surveillance, poorer body image quality of life and lower satisfaction with appearance [ 71 ]. Another study, however, found differing relationships regarding sexual objectification: an association was found between experiences of sexual objectification and internalization of cultural standards of appearance, body shame and drive for muscularity, but was not found between experiences of sexual objectification and self-objectification or body surveillance [ 83 ]: in the same study, gender role conflict [ 84 ] was positively associated to the internalization of sociocultural standards of appearance, self-objectification, body shame and drive for muscularity, suggesting the possibility that different pathways may be involved in producing negative effects on men. Men with body-image concerns experiencing gender role conflict may also be less likely to engage in help-seeking behaviors [ 85 , 86 ]. This is possibly due to restrictive emotionality associated with the male gender role leading to more negative attitudes toward help-seeking, as found in a recent study by Nagai, [ 87 ], although this study finds no association with help-seeking behavior, conflicting with previous ones, and more research is needed.

Finally, specificities related to sexual orientation regarding media and objectification appear to be present. A set of recent studies by Frederick and colleagues found that gay men, lesbian women and bisexual people share with heterosexual people many of the pathways that lead from sociocultural pressures to internalization of thin/muscular ideals, higher body surveillance and a lower body image quality of life [ 71 , 88 ], leading the authors to conclude that these factors’ influence applies regardless of sexual orientation. However, their relationship with media and objectification may vary. Gay and bisexual men may face objectification in social media and dating apps rather than in mainstream media and may experience more objectification than heterosexual men [ 89 ]. In Frederick and colleagues’ studies, gay men reported greater media pressures, body surveillance, thin-ideal internalization, and self-objectification compared to heterosexual men; moreover, bisexual men appeared to be more susceptible to ideal internalization, displaying stronger paths from media appearance pressures to muscular-ideal internalization compared to heterosexual men; lesbian women, instead, demonstrated weaker relationships between media pressures and body image outcomes [ 71 , 88 ]. Consistently with previous studies suggesting a heightened susceptibility to social pressures [ 90 ], bisexual women appeared to be more susceptible to media pressures relative to other groups [ 88 ]. Another recent study of lesbian and bisexual women supported previous evidence for the pathway from the internalization of cultural appearance standards to body surveillance, body shame and eating disorder symptoms; however, it found no significant connection between experiences of objectification and eating disorder symptoms [ 91 ].

2.3. Sexualized Portrayals

Several studies have found sexualizing media representations to be commonplace across a number of different media contents and across different target demographics (i.e., children, adolescents or adults) and genres. Reports of common sexualized representations of women are found in contexts such as television programs [ 92 ], movies [ 93 , 94 , 95 , 96 ], music videos [ 97 , 98 ], advertising [ 54 , 55 ], videogames [ 51 , 99 , 100 ], or magazines [ 101 ].

Exposure to sexualized media has been theorized to be an exogenous risk factor in the internalization of sexualized beliefs about women [ 41 ], as well as one of the pathways to the internalization of cultural appearance ideals [ 102 ]. Daily exposition to sexualized media content has been consistently linked to a number of negative effects. Specifically, it has been found to lead to higher levels of body dissatisfaction and distorted attitudes about eating through the internalization of cultural body ideals (e.g., lean or muscular) in both men and women [ 71 ]. It has also been associated with a higher chance of supporting sexist beliefs in boys [ 103 ], and of tolerance toward sexual violence in men [ 104 ]. Furthermore, exposure to sexualized images has been linked to a higher tolerance of sexual harassment and rape myth acceptance [ 76 ]. Exposure to reality TV programs consistently predicted self-sexualization for both women and men, while music videos did so for men only [ 103 ]. Internalized sexualization, in turn, has been linked to a stronger endorsement of sexist attitudes and acceptance of rape myths [ 105 ], while also being linked to higher levels of body surveillance and body shame in girls [ 106 ]. Internalization of media standards of appearance has been linked to body surveillance in both men and women, as well as body surveillance of the partner in men [ 107 ].

As a medium, videogames have been studied relatively little and have produced less definite results. This medium can offer the unique dynamic of embodiment in a virtual avatar, which has been hypothesized to be able to lead to a shift in self-perception (the “Proteus effect”, as formulated by Yee & Bailenson, [ 108 ]). While some studies have partially confirmed this effect, showing that exposure to sexualized videogame representations can increase self-objectification [ 109 , 110 , 111 ], others [ 112 ] have not found the same relationship. Furthermore, while a study has found an association between sexualized representations in videogames, tolerance of sexual abuse of women and rape myth acceptance [ 113 ], and in another, it was linked to a decreased real-life belief in women’s competence [ 114 ], a recent meta-analysis [ 115 ] found no effect of the presence of sexualized content on well-being, sexism or misogyny.

Research on social media has also shown some specificities. Social media offers the unique dynamic of being able to post and disseminate one’s own content and almost always includes built-in mechanisms for user-generated feedback (e.g., likes), as well as often being populated by one’s peers, friends and family rather than strangers. Sites focusing on image- or video-based content (e.g., Instagram, TikTok) may be more prone to eliciting social comparison and fostering the internalization of cultural appearance ideals, resulting in more associations to negative body image when compared to others that have the same capabilities but offer text-based content as well (e.g., Facebook) [ 116 ]. Social media appears to foster social comparison, which may increase appearance-based concerns [ 117 ]. Consistently with previous research, exposure to sexualized beauty ideals on social media appeared to be associated with lower body satisfaction; exposure to more diverse standards of appearance, instead, was associated with increased body satisfaction and positive mood, regardless of image sexualization [ 116 , 118 ].

3. Discussion

3.1. critical discussion of evidence.

The reviewed evidence (summarized in Table 1 ) points to the wide-ranging harmful effects of stereotyping, objectifying and sexualizing media portrayals, which are reported to be still both common and pervasive. The links to possible harms have also been well documented, with a few exceptions.

Summary of findings.

Gender StereotypesObjectificationSexualization

: Higher belief in gender stereotypes; endorsement of traditional gender roles.
: reduction of political and career-related ambition; organizational discrimination.
: Internalization of cultural ideals of appearance; increase in self-objectification; hostile and benevolent sexism; enjoyment of sexualization.
: proclivity for sexual coercion (moderator); conformity to gender role norms.
: Internalization of cultural ideals of appearance; self-sexualization.
: higher support of sexist beliefs (boys); tolerance toward sexual violence.

: Symptoms of depression and anxiety; higher likelihood of eating disorders; lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.
: symptoms of depression, psychological distress; higher proclivity for sexual coercion; substance abuse, increased perpetration of risky behaviors, intimate partner violence.
: higher likelihood of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors : higher levels of body dissatisfaction; body surveillance; distorted attitudes about eating; higher endorsement of sexist attitudes; acceptance of rape myths.
: body shame (girls).
: body surveillance of the partner.

: media appearance pressures on body imageEffects of exposure to videogames
Virtual realityNon-sexual portrayals; specificities of sexual minorities; virtual realitySpecificities of videogames; specificities of sexual minorities; virtual reality

These representations, especially but not exclusively pertaining to women, have been under social scrutiny following women’s rights movements and activism [ 119 ] and can be perceived to be politically incorrect and undesirable, bringing an aspect of social desirability into the frame. Positive attitudes toward gender equality also appear to be at an all-time high across the western world [ 120 , 121 ], a change that has doubtlessly contributed to socio-cultural pressure to reduce harmful representations. Some media contexts (e.g., advertising and television) seem to have begun reflecting this change regarding stereotypes, attempting to either avoid harmful representations or push more progressive portrayals. However, these significant changes in stereotypes (e.g., regarding competence) have not necessarily been reflected in women’s lives, such as their participation in the labor force, leadership or decision-making [ 31 , 122 , 123 ]. Objectifying or sexualizing representations do not seem to be drastically reduced in prevalence. Certainly, many influences other than media representations are in play in this regard, but their effect on well-being has been found to be pervasive and consistent. Despite widespread positive attitudes toward gender equality, the persistence of stereotypical, objectifying and sexualizing representations may hint at the continued existence of an entrenched sexist culture which can translate into biases, discrimination and harm.

Despite some conflicting findings, the literature also hints at the existence of differences in how media pressures appear to affect men and women, as well as gay, lesbian and bisexual people. These may point to the possibility of some factors (e.g., objectification) playing a different role across different people in the examined pathways, an aspect that warrants caution when considering possible interventions and clinical implications. In some cases, the same relationship between exposure to media and well-being may exist, but it may follow different pathways from distal risk factors to proximal risk factors, as in the case of gender role conflict for men or body shame for lesbian and bisexual women. However, more research is needed to explore these recent findings.

Different media also appear to feature specificities for which more research is needed, such as videogames and social media. The more interactive experiences offered by these media may play an important role in determining their effects, and the type of social media needs to be taken into consideration as well (image- or video-based vs. text-based). Moreover, the experiences of exposure may not necessarily be homogenous, due to the presence of algorithms that determine what content is being shown in the case of social media, and due to the possibility of player interaction and avatar embodiment in the case of videogames.

Past findings [ 37 , 69 ] about links with other social issues such as sexism, harassment and violence appear to still be relevant [ 67 , 73 , 103 , 105 ]. The increases in both tolerance and prevalence of sexist and abusive attitudes resulting from exposure to problematic media representations impact the cultural climate in which these phenomena take place. Consequently, victims of discrimination and abuse living in a cultural climate more tolerant of sexist and abusive attitudes may experience lower social support, have a decreased chance of help-seeking and adopt restrictive definitions for what counts as discrimination and abuse, indirectly furthering gender inequalities.

Exploring ways of reducing risks to health, several authors [ 22 , 41 , 75 ] have discussed media literacy interventions—that is, interventions focused on teaching critical engagement with media—as a possible way of reducing the negative effects of problematic media portrayals. As reported in McLean and colleagues’ systematic review [ 124 ], these interventions have been previously shown to be effective at increasing media literacy, while also improving body-related outcomes such as body satisfaction in boys [ 125 ], internalization of the thinness ideal in girls [ 125 ], body size acceptance in girls [ 126 ] and drive for thinness in girls and boys [ 127 ]. More recently, they were also shown to be effective at reducing stereotypical gender role attitudes [ 128 ], as well as fostering unfavorable attitudes toward stereotypical portrayals and lack of realism [ 129 ]. Development and promotion of these interventions should be considered when attempting to reduce negative media-related influences on body image. It should be noted, however, that McLean and colleagues’ review found no effect of media literacy interventions on eating disorder symptomatology [ 124 ], which warrants more careful interventions.

Furthermore, both internal (e.g., new entrants’ attitudes in interpersonal or organizational contexts) and external (e.g., pressure from public opinion) sociocultural pressures appear to have a strong influence in reducing harmful representations [ 55 , 56 ]. Critically examining these representations when they appear, as well as voicing concerns toward examples of possibly harmful representations, may promote more healthy representations in media. As documented by some studies, the promotion of diverse body representations in media may also be effective in reducing negative effects [ 70 , 118 ].

3.2. Limitations

The current review synthesizes the latest evidence on stereotyping, objectifying and sexualizing media representations. However, limitations in its methodology are present and should be taken into consideration. It is not a systematic review and may not be construed to be a complete investigation of all the available evidence. Only articles written in the English language have been considered, which may have excluded potentially interesting findings written in other languages. Furthermore, it is not a meta-analysis, and as such cannot be used to draw statistical conclusions about the surveyed phenomena.

3.3. Future Directions

While this perception is limited by the non-systematic approach of the review, to what we know, very few studies appear to be available on the relationship between media representation and non-sexual objectification, which may provide interesting directions to explore in relation to autonomy, violability or subjectivity, as was attempted in the context of work and organizations [ 130 ].

More cross-cultural studies (e.g., Tartaglia & Rollero [ 54 ]) would also prove useful in exploring differences between cultural contexts, as well as the weight of different sociocultural factors in the relationship between media representation and gender.

More studies focusing on relatively new media (e.g., social media, videogames) would possibly help clear up some of the identified discrepancies and explore new directions for the field that take advantage of their interactivity. This is particularly true for niche but growing media such as virtual reality, in which the perception of embodiment in an avatar with different physical features than one’s own could prove to be important in sexualization and objectification. Only preliminary evidence [ 131 ] has been produced on the topic.

Studies to further explore the relationship between media representations, gender and sexual orientation would also be beneficial. As already highlighted by Frederick and colleagues [ 132 ], gay, lesbian and bisexual people may deal with a significantly different set of appearance norms and expectations [ 133 ], and face minority-related stresses [ 134 ] that can increase susceptibility to poorer body image and disordered eating [ 135 , 136 ]. Additionally, none of the reviewed studies had a particular focus on trans people, who may have different experiences relating to media and body image, as suggested by the differences in pathways found in a recent study [ 137 ]. Sexual orientation and gender identity should be kept into consideration when investigating these relationships, as their specificities may shed light on the different ways societal expectations influence the well-being of sexual minorities.

The examined literature on the topic also appears to feature specificities that need to be taken into account. As previously reported by Ward [ 37 ], the vast majority of the studies continue to be conducted in the United States, often on undergraduates, which limits the generalizability of the results to the global population. Given the abundance and complexity of the constructs, more studies examining the pathways from media exposure to well-being using methodologies such as path analysis and structural equation modeling may help clarify some of the discrepancies found in the literature about the same relationships.

Finally, as previously reported by many authors [ 37 , 69 , 138 ], sexualization, self-sexualization, objectification and self-objectification are sometimes either treated as synonymous or used with different definitions and criteria, which may add a layer of misdirection to studies on the subject. Given the divergences in the use of terminology, clearly stating one’s working definition of sexualization or objectification would possibly benefit academic clarity on the subject.

4. Conclusions

Consistent empirical evidence highlights the importance of media representations as a key part of sociocultural influences that may have consequences on well-being. Despite some notable progress, harmful representations with well-researched links to detrimental effects are still common across a number of different media. Exposure to stereotyping, objectifying and sexualized representations appears to consistently be linked to negative consequences on physical and mental health, as well as fostering sexism, violence and gender inequity. On a clinical level, interventions dealing with body image and body satisfaction should keep their influence into account. The promotion of institutional and organizational interventions, as well as policies aimed at reducing their influence, could also prove to be a protective factor against physical and mental health risks.

Funding Statement

This research received no external funding.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, F.S. and L.R.; methodology, T.T. and M.N.P.; writing—original draft preparation, F.S.; writing—review and editing, T.T. and M.N.P.; supervision, L.R. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Gender and Media Representations: A Review of the Literature on Gender Stereotypes, Objectification and Sexualization


  • Università degli Studi di Torino

Tommaso Trombetta at Università degli Studi di Torino

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Shattering the glass screen

There are many reasons to care about gender issues in the media and entertainment industry—not the least of which is the importance of moving beyond traditional stereotypes and having diverse storytellers share their unique perspectives in film, television, and other forms of print and broadcast media. Women are among the largest consumers of film and television, so they represent a key demographic for this industry and the advertisers that support it. 1 See Ingrid Lunden, “Nielsen: Women watch more TV than men, but connected games consoles are changing that,” TechCrunch, October 5, 2012, techcrunch.com; and Theatrical market statistics 2016 , Motion Picture Association of America, motionpictures.org.

According to our recent research, women are well represented in media and entertainment companies. 2 For the purposes of this report, we’ve defined the media and entertainment industry as companies that engage in news, film, marketing, ticket sales, event management, and sports. This report is based on employee data from companies that opted in to the Women in the Workplace survey. But even with corporate America’s increased focus on ensuring gender parity, women in this industry experience a more hostile workplace than men and face a glass ceiling that prevents them from reaching top leadership roles.

Using data from the 2019 Women in the Workplace  study, one of the largest and most comprehensive data sets of women in corporate America, McKinsey created a one-year snapshot of how women are progressing in media and entertainment and how their workplace experiences differ from those of men. We supplemented that information with collected data from 15 companies, as well as workplace-experience-survey responses of 1,700 employees 3 Note that the Women in the Workplace study focused on the experiences and representation of salaried employees in corporate America and does not differentiate between editorial, creative, and business staff. It also does not include the hourly and “gig” employees that comprise many of the creative functions in the media and entertainment industry. —both male and female—from the media and entertainment industry in 2019. 4 For the past five years, McKinsey, in collaboration with LeanIn.Org, has published Women in the Workplace , one of the largest comprehensive studies of the state of women in corporate America. Since 2015, the project has surveyed more than a quarter of a million employees at almost 600 companies. Companies voluntarily chose to participate in the study.

We observed some positive trends. At early tenures, for instance, women in media and entertainment are at equal representation as men, which provides a stable foundation for the future. What’s more, at early tenures, promotion rates for women exceed those for men, and the share of women hired from outside the company is equal to or surpasses the share of men. The women in our research also reported high satisfaction with their career choices, as well as a strong desire to be promoted and otherwise advance in their organizations. HR respondents in this industry tended to say their companies were committed to achieving greater parity: 93 percent of them stated that gender diversity was a priority for their organizations.

Women in news organizations

News organizations are a distinct and important part of the media and entertainment industry. They not only deliver daily information and reporting to the general public but they also help shape public opinion. We analyzed the talent-pipeline results from eight news organizations and found that despite some important progress for women in news, there remain significant challenges—particularly for women of color and for women at higher levels in the organization, who are leaving their companies at much higher rates than men. Here is a small snapshot of our findings:

Representation. At the manager level, women in news organizations represent 44 percent of employees, compared with 38 percent in corporate America overall; and at the senior-manager level, women comprise 43 percent of employees, compared with 34 percent in corporate America overall (Exhibit 1). Women of color represent 14 percent of entry-level employees at news organizations, compared with 17 percent in media and entertainment, and 18 percent in corporate America overall. This disparity is exacerbated throughout the pipeline. At the vice-president level, for instance, women of color represent only 4 percent of employees at news organizations, compared with 6 percent of employees in media and entertainment and 7 percent of employees in corporate America overall.

Attrition. At almost every level, women in news organizations leave their companies at higher rates than men. At the vice-president level, for example, women’s attrition rates are almost triple those of men (Exhibit 2).

Organizational attention to diversity and inclusion. Only 14 percent of the news organizations surveyed set gender-based numeric targets for representation of all employees, as compared with 35 percent of companies in corporate America overall. What’s more, news organizations reported offering less training and fewer classes aimed at reducing bias and increasing diversity and inclusion than did companies in corporate America overall. Some provided unconscious-bias training (29 percent versus 52 percent for companies in all industries), or sessions on managing or working with diverse teams (29 percent versus 37 percent for all industries).

But, as with women in all other industries, there are major challenges facing women in media and entertainment. When examining the three main drivers of women’s advancement in corporate America—promotion, attrition, and external hiring—we found that women in entry-level positions in this industry are leaving their companies at higher rates than their male counterparts. Yes, promotions at early tenures drive strong representation at the managerial level, but that progress slows to a crawl the closer you get to the top. We observed that external hiring skews male for C-suite positions, which contributes to a corporate environment in which women are well represented at early-tenure positions but remain a minority at more senior levels. Only 27 percent of C-suite positions in media and entertainment are held by women. We found similar patterns when we took a closer look at one segment of media and entertainment in particular: the news media (see sidebar, “Women in news organizations”).

While women are well represented early in the career pipeline in media and entertainment, they are a minority at the highest levels, with women accounting for only 27 percent of C-suite positions.

Furthermore, we observed that women’s day-to-day workplace experiences in media and entertainment are worse than men’s. Almost half of all respondents said they believe women in their fields are judged by different standards than men, which they say makes it difficult to achieve parity in senior management in their workplaces.

In this article, we review the findings from our research and consider steps executives in media and entertainment can take to encourage greater equity.

There are more women overall …

There are a significant number of women in the media and entertainment industry compared with our overall benchmark for women’s representation in corporate America. Women make up 49 percent of the total workforce in media and entertainment, although most of these women are concentrated in entry-level positions (Exhibit 1). 5 Media and entertainment companies categorized their employees into six levels based on standard definitions, taking reporting structure and salaries into account. This was calibrated across news and entertainment mediums.

Our research shows that women at entry-level positions are moving up the corporate ladder in media and entertainment faster than men. They are being promoted to the manager level twice as often as men—6 percent for women compared with 3 percent for men (Exhibit 2). This promotion rate contributes to a much higher percentage of women managers in the industry than in corporate America as a whole (49 percent in media and entertainment, versus 38 percent for all industries). It also represents a better promotion rate than in the wider workforce where that first promotion to manager is the most significant barrier to women’s advancement, commonly referred to as the “broken rung.”

Our research suggests that women in this industry are more satisfied with their career choices than are women in corporate America overall. Women in media and entertainment report career-satisfaction rates that are slightly higher than men’s—77 percent of women versus 75 percent of men (Exhibit 3). Additionally, 82 percent of women in our research reported a desire to be promoted to the next level, as compared with 71 percent of women across all industries. Indeed, 35 percent of women in media and entertainment said they had asked for a promotion during the past year, compared with 27 percent of men in the industry. These statistics suggest that the low representation of women in senior roles cannot be attributed to a lack of desire for advancement.

… but there is a dearth of women in senior leadership

Women are “getting a foot in the door” in media and entertainment, and they are enthusiastic about seeking advancement—but that’s where positive trends begin to fade. For an entry-level woman looking up, every rung on the career ladder will have fewer women in it. A woman graduating with a degree in mass communications or journalism, for instance, will walk across a stage where six out of every ten students are women. 6 See Ana Borruto, “Studies examine gender enrollment in communications,” Ithacan , April 1, 2015, theithacan.org; and Lee B. Becker, Oana Stefanita, and Tudor Vlad, Predictors of faculty diversification in journalism and mass communication education , Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference, San Francisco, CA, August 2015, grady.uga.edu. If she’s hired into the industry, her entry-level class will consist of five women in every ten hires. Further up the corporate ladder, at the transition from senior manager to vice president, one woman from this group, on average, will drop out of the pipeline. By the time these mass-communication or journalism professionals are poised to reach the C-suite, they will account for fewer than three of every ten executives—a point commonly referred to as the glass ceiling. 7 Sandrine Devillard, Vivian Hunt, and Lareina Yee, “ Still looking for room at the top: Ten years of research on women in the workplace ,” McKinsey Quarterly , March 2018. For both men and women, there have been limited promotions from the senior-vice-president level into the C-suite; the promotion rate is less than 1 percent.

This lack of internal advancement for women is compounded by another observable trend: more men than women are hired from outside the company into the C-suite. Our numbers showed that of external hires in the C-suite, 79 percent were men and 21 percent women. To accelerate women’s representation in the C-suite, media and entertainment companies will need to increase women’s access to internal and external pathways to the top, potentially challenging existing corporate structures. It can be done: in the past five years, many other companies and industries have added women to the senior-most levels of management, and now close to 45 percent of companies have three or more women in the C-suite compared with fewer than 30 percent of companies in 2015.

Women are clearly aware that the deck is stacked against them. Twenty-seven percent of women surveyed in the media and entertainment industry say that gender has played a role in their missing out on a raise, promotion, or a chance to get ahead, as opposed to only 7 percent of men. What’s more, 35 percent of women reported that they expect their gender to make it harder to get a raise or promotion in the future as opposed to 15 percent of men (Exhibit 4).

This inequity grows deeper when we look at the intersection of race and gender. According to our data, women of color are poorly represented across all levels of leadership in media and entertainment. For example, white women represent 33 percent of entry-level roles in media and entertainment, while women of color represent 17 percent. And while women hold 22 percent of C-suite roles in media and entertainment, women of color hold only 4 percent of those positions (Exhibit 5).

Note that men of color also have a difficult path to positions of leadership in media and entertainment. They represent only one out of every six employees at the entry level, and only one out of every 12 employees in the C-suite.

Women are held to a different standard

Almost half of the women in our research said they believe that women in the industry are judged by different standards than men. More important, they consider these gender-biased appraisals to be one of the biggest challenges to getting equal numbers of women and men in management at their organizations.

The numbers suggest that women are more aware of the biases facing other women than men are, with 34 percent of women reporting that they had heard or seen biased behavior toward women in the past year—a number that is 2.7 times higher than their male counterparts (Exhibit 6). This awareness gap can make it difficult for companies to mobilize and address issues with women’s workplace experiences. If men, who still make up four of every five C-suite executives, don’t perceive that bias toward women is happening, they won’t feel compelled to allocate resources toward fixing the problem.

Our research also suggests that women in this industry experience more microaggressions than women in other industries. Microaggressions are brief, often unintended, actions that can slight or marginalize a coworker—for instance, being interrupted while talking or having others explain things to you that you already know. Microaggressions can undermine women’s confidence, inhibit their sense of belonging, and limit their opportunities for advancement. As compared with women in an all-industry benchmark, women in media and entertainment were more likely to report experiencing microaggressions in nine out of the ten categories we asked about (Exhibit 7). What’s more, women of color reported experiencing microaggressions at higher rates than their white peers.

In the wake of such obstacles, 49 percent of women in the media and entertainment industry reported that their companies provided clear and safe ways to voice grievances and concerns, compared with 57 percent in all industries. The good news is that women are demanding even more: almost a third of the women surveyed in media and entertainment reported becoming more outspoken in the past two years about how women are treated at work.

Taking action

As the numbers suggest, there are many obstacles for women in media and entertainment. But the two biggest challenges are the lack of women’s representation in senior positions and the culture of biased behavior that negatively affects women’s day-to-day experiences in the workplace. There are tangible ways that companies can tackle both and help to level the playing field in the media and entertainment industry.

To help women advance to senior positions

Appoint more women to board positions. Adding more women to the board can help ensure greater gender parity as companies evaluate candidates for senior-leadership positions. Board diversity can help to draw in and motivate more talented employees from a broader set of backgrounds. A good way to get started is for boards to make a visible commitment to diversity  and set new principles for decision making—by including women on every candidate slate, for instance. They can also expand their criteria for who gets on the board—by considering candidates with the right expertise, for example, and not just those with prior experience.

Establish senior-sponsorship programs. Sponsorship is crucial to career advancement for both men and women, but research shows they often have networks of different sizes and compositions. For instance, women’s networks tend to be mostly female, while men’s networks are mostly male. 8 “ Women in the Workplace 2016 .” This can become a disadvantage over time because of the lack of senior women available to provide sponsorship to the next generation of women. To bridge this gap, companies can create formal sponsorship programs that connect executives to high-potential women with the goal of building relationships, providing advice, and most important, creating opportunities.

Companies can create formal sponsorship programs that connect executives to high-potential women with the goal of building relationships, providing advice, and most important, creating opportunities.

Create and commit to a culture of accountability. Ensuring that people at the top of the organization are accountable for diversity and inclusion can help shed light on the lack of women in leadership positions. As it stands now, 53 percent of human-resources (HR) respondents from media and entertainment companies said that the head of HR was held accountable for progress (or lack thereof) on diversity metrics or targets, versus only 27 percent reporting that the CEO was held accountable. Compare that with the all-industry benchmark, where 62 percent of HR representatives said the head of HR was accountable and 53 percent said the CEO was held accountable. If companies are truly committed to diversity and gender parity, our research shows that the issue needs to be a top priority for senior leadership. 9 Jess Huang, Alexis Krivkovich, Irina Starikova, Lareina Yee, and Delia Zanoschi, “ Women in the Workplace 2019 .” The BBC’s 50:50 Project provides a good example: Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, set a target of having at least 50 percent women contributing to the creation of BBC content by 2019. In April 2018, only 27 percent of production teams associated with the 50:50 Project reported having at least 50 percent female contributors; by April 2019, that number had increased to 74 percent of production teams. 10 “The BBC announces results of 50:50 Project which reveals big increase in female representation,” May 15, 2019, bbc.co.uk.

Ensure fair evaluations. Establishing formal hiring and evaluation criteria for senior leaders, as well as rank-and-file managers, can help break down entrenched systems that have led to unequal representation at senior levels. One way to formalize these processes is to mandate that companies build diverse candidate slates when hiring; that is, the list of candidates should include at least two qualified women or minority candidates for the hiring managers’ consideration. Another way to ensure that evaluations are fair is to track the outcomes of hiring and promotions to determine whether certain candidates or certain genders, races, or ethnic groups are being favored. The data will reveal whether hiring managers are following company policies, or if new policies need to be created to ensure fair outcomes.

To help address culture issues

Establish a systematic training program to combat biases. Cognitive biases can creep into performance evaluation and hiring processes, at all levels. To help mitigate these biases, companies should offer unconscious-bias training  at important decision-making junctures—for instance, in the case of hiring or promotion decisions. Such training should be available to all, but especially for evaluators. Companies might even consider adding a bias observer to the process to flag any unconscious actions or views that may present themselves during performance evaluations or promotion discussions. When employees feel they have an equal opportunity for advancement and think the system is fair, they are likely to be happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work.

Biased behaviors can be deeply held, so one-off trainings or all-hands meetings may not be enough to change behaviors. True change will require a well-orchestrated campaign of diversity training, frequent communication, leadership modeling and support, and repetition. Such a programmatic approach to culture change should include systematic reminders and nudges about the characteristics of inclusive environments, as well as training and workshops that are aimed at changing behaviors. In an industry in which whom you know can be just as important as what you know, HR should deploy a programmatic approach to ensure that inclusivity is top of mind in the workplace day to day.

Listen to a woman’s perspective. A good way to understand how to create more inclusivity in organizations is to learn from the women who have risen to leadership roles despite the obstacles in their way. For instance, when we asked 150 attendees at a women-only leadership program about their day-to-day work experiences, the systematic shortfalls became clear. Companies must expand the definition of leadership  to encompass a range of styles and traits. They need to telegraph to employees at all levels that leaders need solid nurturing, collaboration, and listening skills, for example, as much as they need a strong and directive tone. Companies must also encourage dissent, so employees won’t be afraid to speak up about inequities and raise awareness about the challenges they face. And they must create space for reflection about gender and leadership issues—for instance, seeking feedback on this topic not just once a year, but on a rolling basis. By making progress in each of these areas, companies can create more inclusive workplaces, improve retention rates among female leaders, and help women fulfill their career goals.

Enlist men as allies. Our research revealed a significant awareness gap between men and women in media and entertainment with regard to noticing biased behaviors in the workplace. A good first step toward closing this gap would be to provide training for employees at all levels on how to work within diverse teams—how to vary communication styles, for example, or how to recognize and limit microaggressions. Several global organizations, including UN Women, provide corporate-action kits to help with just this goal and to promote workplace equality. 11 “Take action,” HeForShe, heforshe.org.

Given the nature of the media and the entertainment industry’s ability to influence culture at large through its production of film, video, and news publications, it is important for this industry to pay close attention to inclusion principles. As this report suggests, progress has been made, but there is more work to be done.

Lucas Beard is a consultant in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office, Jonathan Dunn is a partner in the the Southern California and New York offices, Jess Huang is a partner in the Silicon Valley office, and Alexis Krivkovich is a senior partner in the San Francisco office.

The authors wish to thank Press Forward for its help convening news-industry participation in the 2019 Women in the Workplace survey.

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The crucial role of media in achieving gender equality

  • 21 Feb. 2020

Media today, from traditional legacy media to online media, still hugely influence our perceptions and ideas about the role of girls and women in society. What we have unfortunately seen until now is that media tend to perpetuate gender inequality. Research shows that from a young age, children are influenced by the gendered stereotypes that media present to them.

Research has found that exposure to stereotypical gender portrayals and clear gender segregation correlates “(a) with preferences for ‘gender appropriate’ media content, toys, games and activities; (b) to traditional perceptions of gender roles, occupations and personality traits; as well as (c) to attitudes towards 2 expectations and aspirations for future trajectories of life” .

We are concerned that the latest Secretary General report proposing priority areas to the Commission on the Status of Women does not mention the crucial role of media in achieving gender equality. This is a huge opportunity that is lost. The data we have show that women only make up 24% of the persons heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news. Even worse: 46% of news stories reinforce gender stereotypes while only 4% of stories clearly challenge gender stereotypes.

One in five experts interviewed by media are women. Women are frequently portrayed in stereotypical and hyper-sexualised roles in advertising and the film industry, which has long-term social consequences. And 73% of the management jobs are occupied by men compared to 27% occupied by women.

We strongly believe in the transformative role media can play in achieving gender equality in societies. By creating gender-sensitive and gender-transformative content and breaking gender stereotypes. By challenging traditional social and cultural norms and attitudes regarding gender perceptions both in content and in the media houses. By showing women in leadership roles and as experts on a diversity of topics on a daily basis, not as an exception.

In many countries around the world women’s opinions are dismissed and they are not taught to ask questions and be part of public debate. Without information women don’t know about and can’t exert their rights to education, to property, pensions, etc. and they cannot challenge existing norms and stereotypes. This makes it impossible to achieve inclusive societies as we aim to achieve through the Global Development agenda. Access to information empowers women to claim their rights and make better decisions.

The media industry needs to be encouraged to produce gender-transformative content and to develop self-regulatory equality policies, including access to decision-making positions. Monitoring and evaluation mechanisms need to be set up to assess the progress within the sector. Thereby creating gender equality in content, workplace and management.

Violence against female media workers

The safety of female media workers has in recent years developed into a serious concern, as it creates another obstacle to gender equality within the media. The majority of female media workers experience gender specific harassment both inside their organisations, outside of them, and more increasingly online.

Gender-based violence (GBV), both digital and physical, pose a threat to freedom of expression and access to information. Silencing female journalists constitutes an attack on democracy itself as it leads to self-censorship: women retreating from the public sphere because of the harassment. Almost a third of female journalists consider leaving the profession because of the threats, intimidation or attacks they endure. More than a third of female journalists avoided reporting certain stories for the same reason. Almost half of female journalists experience online abuse. Many of them indicate the abuse has led them to become less active or even inactive on social media, while it’s a crucial part of the job. Threats are often of a sexual and racist nature, targeted at the person instead of the content, making the workplace an unsafe environment for women. This leaves the male-dominated field of media with even fewer female voices.

We believe that the media sector has the responsibility to provide a safe working environment for all staff and to develop policies that prevent GBV. It is imperative media organisations have mechanisms in place that ensure necessary support for those who have experienced GBV at the workplace, while performing their work outside and/or via digital means.

Our recommendations to the Commission on the Status of Women:

  • To recognize the crucial role of media in achieving gender equality in all domains by creating gender-sensitive and gender-transformative content and breaking gender stereotypes.
  • Media should lead the way towards gender equality through gender-sensitive and gender- transformative content. For this we need coherent policies, rules, and mechanisms on all levels, starting with national media policies and media industry self-regulation.
  • Safety of female media workers needs to be a key priority for Member States and the media industry. A culture of safety needs to be created and effective mechanisms for complaints and redress need to be put in place.

Submitted by: International Media Support, Free Press Unlimited, The Carter Center, Fondation Hirondelle, Global Alliance on Media and Gender, International Women’s Media Foundation, Media Diversity Institute, RNW Media, World Association for Christian Communication and WAN-IFRA

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Gender and media representations: a review of the literature on gender stereotypes, objectification and sexualization.

gender stereotypes in mass media essay

1. Introduction

2.1. stereotypical portrayals, 2.2. objectifying portrayals, 2.3. sexualized portrayals, 3. discussion, 3.1. critical discussion of evidence, 3.2. limitations, 3.3. future directions, 4. conclusions, author contributions, conflicts of interest.

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Gender StereotypesObjectificationSexualization

: Higher belief in gender stereotypes; endorsement of traditional gender roles.
: reduction of political and career-related ambition; organizational discrimination.
: Internalization of cultural ideals of appearance; increase in self-objectification; hostile and benevolent sexism; enjoyment of sexualization.
: proclivity for sexual coercion (moderator); conformity to gender role norms.
: Internalization of cultural ideals of appearance; self-sexualization.
: higher support of sexist beliefs (boys); tolerance toward sexual violence.

: Symptoms of depression and anxiety; higher likelihood of eating disorders; lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.
: symptoms of depression, psychological distress; higher proclivity for sexual coercion; substance abuse, increased perpetration of risky behaviors, intimate partner violence.
: higher likelihood of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors : higher levels of body dissatisfaction; body surveillance; distorted attitudes about eating; higher endorsement of sexist attitudes; acceptance of rape myths.
: body shame (girls).
: body surveillance of the partner.

: media appearance pressures on body imageEffects of exposure to videogames
Virtual realityNon-sexual portrayals; specificities of sexual minorities; virtual realitySpecificities of videogames; specificities of sexual minorities; virtual reality
The statements, opinions and data contained in all publications are solely those of the individual author(s) and contributor(s) and not of MDPI and/or the editor(s). MDPI and/or the editor(s) disclaim responsibility for any injury to people or property resulting from any ideas, methods, instructions or products referred to in the content.

Share and Cite

Santoniccolo, F.; Trombetta, T.; Paradiso, M.N.; Rollè, L. Gender and Media Representations: A Review of the Literature on Gender Stereotypes, Objectification and Sexualization. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2023 , 20 , 5770. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20105770

Santoniccolo F, Trombetta T, Paradiso MN, Rollè L. Gender and Media Representations: A Review of the Literature on Gender Stereotypes, Objectification and Sexualization. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health . 2023; 20(10):5770. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20105770

Santoniccolo, Fabrizio, Tommaso Trombetta, Maria Noemi Paradiso, and Luca Rollè. 2023. "Gender and Media Representations: A Review of the Literature on Gender Stereotypes, Objectification and Sexualization" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 20, no. 10: 5770. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20105770

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Gender Stereotypes in Mass Media: An Analysis of Perpetuating

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Mass Media Impacts on Children Studies of Gender Essay

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Comparison of media, gender stereotypes, impacts of mass media exposure on children.

What impact does mass media have on children’s growth in regards to gender messaging? The media portrayals of gender roles often create certain gendered attitudes and character traits among children. Gender stereotyping, packaged as humor, is common in popular children’s channels, films, video games, and television shows.

The young viewers watch and internalize overt attitudes and behavior contained in media messages resulting in ingrained gender stereotypes. Certain misconceptions, such as ‘boys will always be boys’ and ‘girls are always neat, conveyed through the media have a big influence on young children’s attitudes and behavior.

Besides overt expressions, young children receive a barrage of subtle messages that portray the society’s gendered attitudes and expectations. The media are responsible for “defining and framing gender stereotypes in the society” (Whitaker & Bushman, 2013, p. 89). Children process gender messages in the media and develop attitudes about what is right or wrong.

This paper argues that media exposure has negative impacts on children’s gender socialization and attitude formation. Media messages convey skewed expectations of male and female behavior and role, which unrealistic gender stereotypes and identities.

The 1980s are characterized by the evolution of personal computers, which became available in schools and homes (Lou et al., 2012). Computers were revolutionary in the sense that they enabled children to access more media content and interact online. The interactive element was missing in traditional media forms such as television. In addition, the advent of computers transformed media content as messages begun to contain sexual and gender elements.

In the 1990s, media channels, such as kid’s films, video games, and television shows begun to convey sexual content and gendered messages. Parents protested against the inclusion of sexual themes in children’s programs claiming that such exposure was detrimental to their social growth.

As a result, it was decided that all films, cartoons, music videos, and TV shows be rated to regulate the content conveyed to young audiences (Lou et al., 2012). However, due to flawed enforcement of the rating systems, children continue to access sexual messages. In addition, gender stereotypes, as portrayed in mass media, continue to influence children’s attitudes, behavior, and popular culture.

Gender and sex mean two different things; the former refers to the cultural and societal qualities attributed to a social group while the latter defines the distinctive biological traits of male and female (Whitaker & Bushman, 2013). While sex has a biological basis, gender develops through social interactions.

Femininity and masculinity are defined according to set social standards that define ideal male or female behavior. People learn these sexualized roles through gender typing, whereby culture defines what is appropriate or inappropriate for either gender (Lou et al., 2012).

Peers and parents play a crucial role in early gender identity development and socialization. The way parents treat their children, including the type of toys they buy for them and media messages received, influences their attitudes and behavior (Lou et al., 2012).

Young children learn to associate clothing, toys, and activities with feminine or masculine identity based on messages portrayed in the media. Society expects boys to pursue activities associated with power and influence while girls are expected to show loyalty and care to others (Lou et al., 2012). Thus, despite biological predispositions, society has a big influence on children’s behavior and interests. The media maintain these gender stereotypes through the messages they convey to young children.

Gender stereotypes occur in media ads and commercials, teen films, music videos, video games, storybooks, and kid’s television programs, among others (Eisend, 2010). Media portrayals of gender attributes include independence, competitiveness, and assertiveness for males and gentleness for females.

Men are also taught to assert their authority over women, while women are expected to sensitive and caring to others. Moreover, women are displayed as weak and compliant while men are depicted as aggressive and powerful. Thus, qualities that involve empathy, such as affection, nurturing, and collaboration are considered feminine. On the other hand, aggression and independence are masculine qualities.

Women are also victims of sexual objectification by the media. Commercials carry sexualized and distorted images of feminine and masculine bodies. Other forms of media, such as video games, use female characters with big bosoms and attractive bodies (Smith & Cook, 2012).

Women are also under pressure to look young, pretty, and single, and dress in a sexy manner. Besides, discussions in popular television and radio programs feature issues related to shopping, relationships, and attractiveness with less emphasis on economic or political themes. Lou et al. ( 2012) observe that the media portrayals associate women with household/family roles and men with careers.

However, other studies associate single women with careers and married ones with marital roles (Smith & Cook, 2012). In general, the media often link women to family or romance regardless of their marital status. Other media forms associate femininity with youthfulness, independence, and tenderness.

The media has, inarguably, a big influence on children’s gender socialization. The young audience is more likely to be influenced by gender stereotypes contained in media products than adults are. Moreover, it is more difficult to change ingrained media stereotypes in children than in adults.

According to Eisend (2010), media stereotypes affect girls negatively by eliciting feelings of poor self-image and dissatisfaction with one’s appearance. This hampers their personal growth, restricts access to opportunities, and affects career progression. The media also foster the continuity of gendered attitudes in the society regarding behavior and gender roles.

Exposure to popular media also influences children’s attitudes. A study by Madden et al. (2013), which examined how television influences attitude formation, found a positive correlation between TV viewership and personal values and feelings. Regular exposure to television messages produces ingrained values and attitudes that are difficult to change in young viewers.

Based on these findings, Madden et al., (2013) conclude that the media makes children to see and interpret traits, activities, and behavior with ‘gendered lenses’. Gender stereotypes can affect the young audience’s “perception of social reality” (Madden et al., 2013, Para. 5). Children imitate what they see or hear on the media, resulting in a popular culture built on gendered stereotypes.

Media influence is more pronounced during the adolescent stage. A study by Ramasubramanian (2011) established that people harbor negative stereotypes against “female relationships and gender roles” associated with out-group members (p. 501). The gender stereotypes in teen films contribute to the development of negative attitudes in the teens.

Teens are vulnerable because adolescence is a crucial stage in identity formation. Normally, during this stage, early secondary sexual changes in boys improve their social standing while those without the characteristics are labeled immature. Thus, teens face pressure from the social environment to conform to particular qualities associated with either masculinity or femininity. In most cultures, showing emotions is a feminine quality that men should not embrace.

Advertisers capitalize on societal gender roles to sell products. Eisend (2010) argues that media commercials reflect societal ideals regarding female and male behavior, attitudes, and activities. Eisend (2010) further observes that the recurring themes in girl’s magazines involve topics related to “fashion, beauty, romance, and food” (p. 421). Thus, the ads placed in girls’ magazines promote attractiveness, housekeeping, and relationship building.

In contrast, societal masculine ideals encourage boys to suppress feelings of empathy or weakness. Boys are not expected to display compassion or fear, as these are deemed feminine. This attitude has adverse effects on the behavior of boys. Whitaker and Bushman (2013) found that boys are exhibit negative attributes such as violence against girls and depression due to the societal requirement for suppressing emotions.

Additional evidence shows that boys have a higher dropout rate and are more likely to suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls are (Whitaker & Bushman, 2013). Boys adhere to societal ideals to gain the approval of their male peers. Eisend (2010) argues that society relegates women to lower social ranks and thus, men do not value women’s approval. Failure to meet the set masculine ideals subjects boys to shame and thus, they strive to attain them. However, this leaves them hardened and less self-aware.

On the other hand, studies report that early media exposure is beneficial to children’s cognitive and social development. Research shows that young children can learn from educational television programs leading to improved cognitive development (Smith & Cook, 2012). However, situational and individual factors modulate learning and cognition by influencing a person’s attitudes.

Ramasubramanian (2011) establishes that “pro-social video games enhance positive internal states, which result in positive social development” in young children (p. 503). The internal states, in turn, enhance a child’s evaluation and critical thinking skills leading to better decision-making. Positive internal states also enhance children’s mental resources and socialization skills during interpersonal encounters. Thus, positive internal states can result in thoughtful pro-social decisions.

Other positive effects of early exposure to pro-social media include enhanced constructive behavior (empathy), helping a female experiencing harassment, and reduction in hostile emotions (Ramasubramanian, 2011). In addition, counter-stereotypical media portrayals can modify ingrained negative attitudes towards people of the opposite sex (Ramasubramanian, 2011).

Gender role socialization can also be modified through repeated exposure to positive media images. Television shows portraying women taking up careers considered masculine can change the attitudes of young girls pursue them. Moreover, media programs containing pro-equality messages can encourage women to seek for gender equality and affirmative action in unequal societies.

Media plays a central role in early gender socialization. In particular, gender stereotypes and attitudes existing in society are transferred to children through the media. These stereotypes have negative effects on behavior and attitudes of children towards out-group members as well as on gender roles.

On the other hand, positive media products can promote socialization and cognitive development in children. However, it requires enhanced parental involvement to promote the positive media effects. In sum, the proliferation of media forms coupled with reduced parental involvement has led to negative gender stereotypes and identities in children.

Eisend, M. (2010). A meta-analysis of gender roles in advertising. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 38 , 418-440.

Lou, C., Cheng, Y., Gao, E., Zuo, X., Emerson, M. R. & Zabin, L.S. (2012). Media’s contribution to sexual knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors for adolescents and young adults in three Asian cities. Journal of Adolescent Health, 50 (3), 26-36.

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (2013). Teens and Technology 2013. Pew Internet & American Life Project Report.

Ramasubramanian, S. (2011). The impact of stereotypical versus counterstereotypical media exemplars on racial attitudes, causal attributions, and support for affirmative action. Communication Research, 38, 497-516.

Smith, S. L., & Cook, C. A. (2012). Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV. Geena Davis Institute for Gender and Media.

Whitaker, J. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). “Remain calm. Be kind.” Effects of relaxing video games on aggressive and prosocial behaviour. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 88 -92

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    This stereotype of women in STEM fields, or women who are nerds, in the media perpetuates the idea that women that work in science or enjoy the field cannot function in society or be relatable to the average person. Psychologist Sapna Cheryan from the University of Washington conducted a study to show that women whose only experience with the ...

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