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Why looks beat substance on TV

When it comes to female news anchors, the first box employers tick is whether they are beautiful enough to be on screen. If they look the part, they most likely get the job

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

In an eye-opening experiment in 2014, an Australian male TV anchor wore the same suit to work for a year. Interestingly, after the period of experiment, the anchor drew the conclusion that no one noticed, actually no one cared.

His experiment was meant to draw comparisons at how his female colleagues were harshly judged in regard to their dressing and appearance compared to men. Such are the double standards women broadcasters have to endure.

Pressure for women anchors to have a particular appearance is rife locally and in newsrooms across the world. No doubt, television anchors work in a field where appearance matters.

Nonetheless, the obsession with good looks, especially for women has at times been pushed to pervasive extents. So much  so that, the obsession with physical appearance has in some instances overshadowed the need for competence.

Newsroom trophies

Winnie Mukami, a former news anchor reveals that she experienced instances where her physical appearance was prioritised above her intellect and experience. “What female anchors bring to the table goes unnoticed because unfortunately, attention shifts to the size of the skirt, length of the shoe and how well the eyebrows are marked,” she says.

During her over two years experience as a news anchor, she found that obsession with looks was one of the ways women were bullied, objectified and relegated to the meagre role of being newsroom trophies.

Winnie recounts one experience where she walked into an editor’s office with what she considered an award- winning idea. “But all he did was just stare at my breasts and hips without making any eye contact. I remember receiving Sh10,000 on my M-Pesa from him, which he termed as a small token,” she says.

She reversed the money even though at the time she was broke and needed it. Her boss did not take her refusal kindly and since then, he frustrated her by constantly shutting any idea she came up with.

Eventually, the pressure about her appearance was too much and it was partly the reason she decided to quit the newsroom. Another broadcaster who spoke on condition of anonymity said that there was a certain look that was preferred for television. “Petite and light skinned ladies were more preferred for television.

Having these two characteristics got one inches closer to bagging the job,” she says. A fascination with  slender women of Asian origin is also rife in the media. Dark complexioned and plus-size women in the newsroom who hoped to appear on the silver screens had to work twice as hard to prove their worth.

Besides, they had to endure snide remarks from bosses, who were not keen on how good they were at their job, but rather how they looked. The prejudice against dark and plus-sized women anchors at times turned into downright bullying.

“A dissatisfied boss can at times frustrate these women broadcasters by, say taking them off primetime bulletins and assigning them smaller bulletins or insisting they just voice stories and not anchor,” she says.

According to Winnie, despite sexism being rampant in newsrooms, women continued to suffer in silence, giving male chauvinists a reason to continue to perpetuate the oppression against women anchors.

The demand for women to dress in a certain way, in tight clothes, high heels and wear make-up  sexualises them to some extent and trivialises their intelligence, skills and experience. 

Sofie Ogutu, founder Supporting Women Artist Network (Swan) and a feminist, opines that such undermining of women anchors is based on a lack of level playing field in the newsrooms.

“Why is it that people do not bother to discuss the tie that a man wears, but take time to analyse what a woman wears?” Blatant sexism and patriarchy play a big role in perpetuating the gender imbalances,” she says. Key statistics show male dominance in newsrooms.

Selling point

A survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors in 2016 found out that  one in every three of employees in newsrooms are women while only 37 per cent  held positions as supervisors. A  2011 report by International Women’s Media Foundation found that 73 per cent of top management jobs in newsrooms were held by men and  so were 64 per cent of reporters jobs.

According to Sofie, stiff competition between television channels, has also led them to devise ways to get more viewers, but sadly women anchors are  used as the ‘selling points’ to draw traffic.

“Viewers are interested on how a woman broadcaster looks and what she wears. To a large extent viewers contribute to putting pressure how women anchors appear on screen,” says Sofie.

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