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Where are the female superheroes?

Tracey Follows explains why a dearth of driven, daredevil role models on our screens (leather-clad or otherwise) are holding back women in the workplace.

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There was an article in Forbes last month questioning why Marvel was not considering a Black Widow standalone movie. For those who are not up on their comic-book heroes, the new Captain America movie features Scarlett Johansson (pictured) as the Black Widow female superhero – a character who has already appeared in Iron Man 2 and Avengers Assemble. This news prompted the question to be asked on Twitter: when would a standalone Black Widow film (with Johansson) be in the works? Not any day soon, came the replies from those in the know.

It seems that, while the studios are happy to give prominence on the billboard and in the trailer to Black Widow, a film in which she is centre stage was thought to be pos­sible but basically less compelling. Time will tell, but it reminded me of the female action superheroes that I looked up to as a child in the 70s: Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, even Charlie’s Angels. Where have they all gone?

It is actually an important question because we need young girls to grow up in the presence of female characters that are active risk-takers: female icons who are clearly seen to take on their enemies, their problems and even their ambitions, and risk it all in order to win.

There is currently a gap between how young men and young women view risk-taking, particularly in their careers, and that very much applies in the creative and media industries, where there is so much competition and sometimes little structured guidance about how to progress and succeed.

At JWT, we last month surveyed 280 UK professional and white-collar workers aged 18-34 in an attempt to uncover the reasons why. Looking at the answers from women, compared with those from men, gave us some insight and provided some thought-provoking discussion.

While both men and women rate themselves roughly equal on a risk-taking scale in general, women say they are most likely to take risks in the following areas: expressing their views and opinions; where they travel; and what they wear. Men, on the other hand, say they are most likely to take risks in these areas: their career; expressing their views and opinions; and their leisure pursuits. Leaving one’s interpretation of "leisure pursuits" aside (ahem), this clearly shows that men are more willing than women to be risk-taking in their career.

We need young girls to grow up in the presence of female characters that are risk-takers

Digging a little deeper into the data, we found other differences, though. Where women differ is thinking that high risk is "challenging the opinion of a senior colleague or client" and "making decisions without sign-off from your boss". Unlike women, men think of high-risk career activity as "making a hire on gut instinct". This seems to indicate that, when women are thinking about taking a risk, they are viewing it in the context of how they would be perceived by an authority figure. Whereas, the risk-taking that men are thinking about is in the context of how well they are exercising their own authority.

Duberley Media’s Linda Duberley, a media training expert, explained that, while she works increasingly with men and women on media presentation skills, the women seem more worried about what others will think. "Men have little difficulty in accepting this and put themselves forward for training and coaching. Women find this more difficult because many of them think they will be seen as hogging the limelight," she said.

It may be that more women shy away from "hogging the limelight" because they are less confident in their sense of authority and worry about what their boss will think. But speaking out on company policy or industry issues is part of contributing to and enriching the debate.

Another interesting finding from our survey came from the question about how they would categorise or measure recognition as a result of taking a risk. The top answer for women, at 78 per cent, was a bonus.

The top answer for men, at 71 per cent, was a pay rise. Again, this indicates that women tended to see risk-taking as something outside the norm. Usually something that is rewarded by a bonus is a mark of going beyond business as usual. Men, however, seem to see recognition coming in the form of a pay rise, indicating that they may see risk-taking as part of their job.

We need more female superheroes on our screens taking risks, so that we can produce more female heroes in the real world who will do the same. We need fantastic female superheroes who can not only imagine taking huge risks and putting themselves in "harm’s way", but who actually do and live to tell the tale. Female heroes who risk it all with only their superpowers to rely on – and who, against all the odds, succeed in their quests. Women who reap the personal rewards and the public recognition, and themselves become superheroes for a whole new generation.

Tracey Follows is the chief strategy officer at JWT London and chair of Wacl Gather. "She who dares wins – exploring risk and reward in business and beyond" is the theme of Gather, the training day organised by Wacl and held at King’s Place, London, on 7 May.   http://www.wacl.info/gather

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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