Subordinated Stills: An Empirical Study of Sexist Print Advertising and Its Implications for Law

By Preston, Cheryl B. | Texas Journal of Women and the Law, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Subordinated Stills: An Empirical Study of Sexist Print Advertising and Its Implications for Law

Preston, Cheryl B., Texas Journal of Women and the Law

I. Introduction

In the last half century, the professions, especially law, have become increasingly open to women, but the access path is still surprisingly narrow and convoluted. Nancy J. Reichman and Joyce S. Sterling's Fall 2004 study report, Sticky Floors, Broken Steps, and Concrete Ceilings in Legal Careers,1 reached a variety of disheartening conclusions: "[T]he pipeline of women lawyers leaks at all levels;"2 "The distribution of assignments is socially constructed in a world where gender stereotypes still operate;"3 "[G]ender is a factor in the distribution of firm resources;"4 "[B]oys' clubs still exist;"5 and "[U]nintentional gender bias can be self-fulfilling."6 While feminists of the second wave have accomplished much in their fight for equality, these and other studies suggest we need to stop selfcongratulating for a moment and reassess whether the movement stopped too far short of its goals.

As overt sexism of the last generation fades, it becomes more difficult to see and thus to explain the seemingly invisible barriers to career success that many women still experience. Social psychologist Virginia Valian observes that "people's overt beliefs in equality may cause them to avoid making ... stereotypic statements, but their nonconscious schemas may not prevent them from making stereotypic judgments."7 Those who would eradicate the concealed stereotypes that cause discrimination against women must bring the "nonconscious schemas" to light and give them a name. Thus, with Virginia Valian, I seek to help "make the invisible visible: to show what retards women's progress, so that fair and accurate evaluations of men and women will become possible."8 What is plainly visible in the "still" pictures of advertising reveals an undercurrent of gender subordination that "still" haunts American life.

I begin with the premise that we can see in the reflected lens of popular culture many attitudes and stereotypes we do not recognize in the busy activity of daily living. In popular culture, observable especially in its most condensed form-print advertisements-we see an astonishingly consistent depiction of women as childish, confused, passive, and ultimately disappearing into foolishness by age thirty. A careful study of these depictions provides useful insight into the sources, parameters, and implications of stereotypes inimical to the success of women professionals.

The study reported here adds to the discussion of women in the legal profession by providing empirical facts from print advertising. As William Hines remarked recently, "Getting the facts right is often the hardest part of a legal scholar's task."9 The study data support, at least in part, the conclusion that subtle but pervasive gender bias contributes significantly to continually disappointing results for female legal professionals.

My study furthers the work begun in the 1970s by Erving Goffman of systematically analyzing gender depictions in magazine advertising.10 My study compares depictions of women and men, emphasizing discrepancies in apparent power and competence. It traces displays of powerlessness through traits such as immaturity, incompetence, childishness, triviality, and silliness. The results suggest possible explanations for the perception of bias against women in the legal profession and why many women lawyers feel trapped between two expectations: competent legal professional and powerless woman-child.

Part II of this article sets out the context for this study. I first briefly outline some of the continued difficulties experienced by women in law. I then explain the current status of research about female images in print media. Part III contains the Subordinated Stills study itself: the focus, method, and statistical results of the research. Part IV provides observations about the connections between the data and the stereotypes that harm women professionals.

II. Background

A. Continued Struggles for Women in Law

The following sentiment, in various words, appears in almost every writing on women in the profession: "The movement of women into the legal profession is one of the great under-noticed revolutions of our time,"11 but "[m]any .

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Subordinated Stills: An Empirical Study of Sexist Print Advertising and Its Implications for Law


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