Rikleen Institute LLC

A Version of the Following Blog Appeared in Forbes Woman - Couric Bows Out as Poster Woman for Implicit Bias

May 20, 2011

This post was written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.  For the full link to the She Negotiates Blog posting, click here

Nearly five years ago, I wrote an article about why women needed Katie Couric to succeed in her role as the first woman to solo anchor a network news broadcast. At the time, the response to the CBS announcement of her new role was a barrage of publicly expressed doubts that no male previously elevated to that same job had ever faced.

When, for example, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams assumed the anchor seat, they were referred to by their last names, and the coverage focused on their work history, not their attire. For Katie Couric, however, questions immediately arose as to whether she could demonstrate the necessary "gravitas" of a news anchor after 15 years as a Today Show host – notwithstanding that Brokaw made a similar leap.

Even worse, however, were the constant comments about her physical appearance. Words of advice were freely offered, most completely inconsequential, such as suggesting she cut her hair and not wear earrings that dangle. And, of course, all that advice was wrapped in the comfortable reference to “Katie”, which helped to undermine her role as a serious journalist.

Couric became the poster person for unexamined bias – the subtle form of second generation bias that is less overt than the outright prejudice women faced when they first entered the work force, but whose effects are equally as pernicious. Studies have continually demonstrated that women are evaluated more harshly than men, and that unconscious stereotyping creates far greater hurdles for women seeking to advance in the workplace.

As I wrote at the time: “Katie Couric may have shattered the glass ceiling of network news … but she is still frequently judged by the same separate – and biased – standards … Most women recognize that Katie Couric is simply facing a very public version of what women in the workplace encounter each day. Be serious, but not stern. Be approachable, but not perky (a repeated description that must haunt Katie Couric in her dreams). Be aggressive, but not strident. Be sure to look good, but do not call undue attention to what you wear. If you are a working mother, be the perfect role model while walking the tightrope between commitment to the job and caring about your children. And do it all perfectly, because you will be judged to a higher standard.” These are the challenges women continue to face in the pursuit of positions of leadership and power in the workplace, as recently discussed by women leaders in the legal profession who gathered at the Women’s Power Summit on Law and Leadership, sponsored by the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law.

Five years later, with the same grace that has become the hallmark of her public persona, Couric has left the anchor desk, amid criticism that she did not pull the CBS Evening News out of its last place ranking among the 3 network news broadcasts. It is as though Couric is being held responsible for the fading importance of prime time news, amid the intense competition from the plethora of cable news outlets that provide the same information on a 24/7 basis.

In interviews, Couric has questioned whether too many changes were made to the broadcast too quickly. She has stated that perhaps she should have built her audience before changing the set and other features which were presented to the viewers who tuned into her first broadcast. Perhaps some did have difficulty adjusting to so many changes at the outset.

But my feelings of trepidation came at the start of the news broadcast each evening, before Couric appeared on screen. In those first few seconds, the beloved voice of Walter Cronkite announced: “This is the CBS Evening News, with Katie Couric.” Notwithstanding Cronkite’s deserved status as the most trusted name in news, his introduction to Couric’s broadcast came across as a lack of confidence in her ability to assume the anchor seat without the paternal seal of approval from the eminent senior journalist.

Couric had many fine journalistic moments throughout her 5-year run at CBS, many of which she highlighted in a montage during her final broadcast. But in the end, she could not overcome the extraordinary misplaced media focus that her predecessors never had to endure. That she underwent the scrutiny and continued to do her job each day with determination and ability is a lesson to be learned by all who aspire to the top job.

Couric paved the path for others to follow with far less scrutiny, as Diane Sawyer can attest. Couric did not need a father figure’s approval to open her broadcast. She simply needed to be judged by fairer standards.