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Elizabeth Grabe
Department of Telecommunications

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, January 31, 2011

New study: Provocatively dressed female anchors distract male viewers, sidetrack their credibility

Jan. 31, 2011

Editors: An electronic copy of the paper is available from the related links section of this release or from George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new study from Indiana University shows that women looking to break through the glass ceiling into senior broadcast news positions or more prominent on-camera roles in television may hinder themselves when they succumb to pressures to dress in a more sexually alluring manner.

The study also supports the concerns of many female journalists who have faced gender discrimination as they get older in a news industry that disfavors aging women anchors.

The paper, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Communication Research, already has received much national attention for its findings that men retain less news information when a female anchor's appearance plays to her sexual features.

The paper's authors are Elizabeth Grabe, professor of telecommunications, and Lelia Samson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Telecommunications in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Grabe and Samson had a 24-year-old woman do a short newscast twice, once wearing a conservative shapeless outfit and subtle makeup, and again while adorned in an outfit designed to accentuate her waist-to-hip ratio, a necklace that emphasized her neckline, and red lipstick. Nearly 400 participants were randomly assigned to watch one of the two newscasts and respond to questions.

The findings suggest that enhanced sexual attractiveness boosted men's perceptions of her professionalism. Yet, when it came to assessing her competence for reporting on different kinds of news, men were not optimistic about her abilities to do a good job reporting on hard news topics.

"We saw a classic gender divide on that," Grabe said of their findings related to anchor credibility. "Men saw the sexualized anchor as less fit to report on hard news topics such as politics and economics than her unsexualized version. It might very well be hard for men to take sexually attractive women seriously."

At the same time, women who evaluated the anchor did not differ across the two versions in rating her competencies. Interestingly, women audience members remembered more newscasts delivered by the more sexualized anchor.

"We don't know why that is," said Grabe, who was a news producer before becoming a professor. "We think that women might feel a sense of competition with the sexualized version, so they pay more attention to her and what she's saying."

In a team of four researchers, they are working on a follow-up study to examine this more closely.

Grabe said they were prompted to do the study by apparent trends in how women are presented in television news, through their clothing choices and grooming as well as through set design. They also were prompted by the numerous gender discrimination lawsuits that have been filed by female journalists.

They felt it was important to examine how this affected journalism's mission to inform the public. "We understand that journalists have to make money. They have to sell ads. They have to draw eyeballs, but this might be a costly way of doing that -- at least in terms of their noble mission to inform," she said.

"Sexual cues harden men's perceptions of a woman's ineptness to report on traditionally masculine story topics," Samson and Grabe wrote in the article. "Given that men dominate executive decision-making positions in newsrooms, including story assignments, this discrepancy between how men and women see a sexually attractive woman's professional competence might fuel gender tension in the workplace.

"Despite the television news industry's focus on hiring young and attractive female anchors, the workplace environment they enter might very well be unfriendly. Being hired or fired -- at least in part -- for sexual attractiveness is unlikely to diversify avenues for professional development. Ultimately, this industry sensibility perpetuates a gendered rather than professional work environment for female journalists."

The authors received no financial support for the research.