By LAUREN STILLER RIKLEEN
For decades, Americans have turned daily to the stoic comfort of their network anchors to watch history unfold. And even as viewers stray to the cable news channels’ non-stop coverage of the sensational, for 30 minutes each day — and longer in times of crisis — network anchors still draw millions who seek the days’ headlines from a familiar face.
Since television first entered our homes, those familiar faces who have sat solo in the anchor chair have been men. Each evening they arrived for work in their dark suit and appropriately matched tie, never having to worry that the next day’s media cycle would include a critique of their hair color or length, or comment whether their outfit was too light or too dark, or whether it revealed too much or too little. And it would be inconceivable that relentless attention could be focused on the shape of their legs.
That will all change on Tuesday, when Katie Couric begins her role as the first woman to serve as the sole anchor of a major network news broadcast. One can only hope that her reporting of the day’s news will be heard over the din that will inevitably follow focusing on her appearance and her personality.
Katie Couric may have shattered the glass ceiling of network news when she was selected to anchor without a male partner, but she is still frequently judged by the same separate — and biased — standards that other women face. Study after study demonstrates that women are evaluated more harshly than men and that unconscious stereotyping creates far greater hurdles for women seeking to advance in the workplace.
Consider the press coverage that followed the CBS announcement that Katie Couric would anchor the evening-news broadcast. In the media frenzy, nearly every article questioned whether she could demonstrate the necessary "gravitas" of a news anchor after 15 years as one of the hosts of The Today Show.
Yet when Tom Brokaw made the same transition, it was without the accompanying media firestorm of doubts. Nor have other male anchors faced such scrutiny. When Brian Williams ascended to the NBC anchor desk and Bob Schieffer commenced his service as interim CBS anchor, the coverage discussed past roles in the news business that had prepared them for their new positions, without reference to their physique. Moreover, news stories referred to them by their last names, unlike the familiar media reference to "Katie," which only serves to undermine her role as a serious journalist. One commentator’s words of wisdom included a recommendation that she cut her hair, avoid trendy outfits, and stop wearing earrings that dangle.
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.
As working women know too well and as studies have confirmed, men are more likely to be judged on their potential, while women are judged on their performance. As Katie Couric strives to succeed in what has been a distinctly male domain, women should be rooting for her success. She is undertaking a highly visible role where the examination will be relentless.
After a decade and a half on morning television, she will be entering into an entirely new relationship with her viewers. As in any relationship, that requires change and compromise. She will have to find a persona that is comfortable for her and her viewing audience. And she deserves some time to find that comfort zone. If she can successfully navigate the anticipated gauntlet of scrutiny and ultimately be judged on her competence, she will make it easier for other women who seek to break through gender barriers and be evaluated on their job performance.
In a world free of gender bias, we would not wake up on Wednesday to detailed stories about Katie Couric’s first broadcast that focus more on style than on substance. But we do not yet live in that world, so the media scrutiny will likely flourish in its analysis of her clothing, perkiness level, and whether she exuded the appropriate level of gravitas. But like everything else she has done under the spotlight, Katie Couric can be expected to handle the glare with grace. That quality will serve as a positive role model for women everywhere who are striving to succeed in unfamiliar territory. Women need this success story to have a happy ending. And Katie Couric has earned it the old-fashioned way — by working hard and following her dreams.
(Lauren Stiller Rikleen, author of "Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law," is executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success and a senior partner in the Massachusetts law firm of Bowditch & Dewey, LLP.)