How Telegraph's Rona Fairhead story revealed everyday sexism

05 September 2014 -


Online storm over paper’s antiquated headline shows that fusty attitudes about female leaders are out of step with public views

Will Edwards

One of this week’s most interesting business stories could quite simply have been titled something like: “Ex-CEO of FT Group to become chair of BBC Trust”. But one newspaper’s headline on the subject has brought it no end of trouble from critics who picked up on its ill-judged wording.

On Saturday, news emerged that Financial Times Group leader Rona Fairhead was going to be taking up a new role. Fairhead – who has an MBA from Harvard and was made CBE in 2012 – has exactly the sort of impressive CV you would expect from the person deemed fit to run the FT Group, with previous experience chalked up at Pearson, ICI, Bain Consulting and Morgan Stanley. As if that were not enough, Fairhead is also a non-executive director at HSBC. So it was a surprise to many when the Sunday Telegraph reported the story (as a news-in-brief article, no less) with the headline “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC”. What was far less surprising was the ensuing response.

The Huffington Post covered the story the same day, with the opening line “Still don’t believe that the media has a sexism problem?” Meanwhile, the New Statesman take was “Mother of three is how the Telegraph describes an HSBC director”. Website BuzzFeed even began collating comments from Twitter – many of which were copying in @EverydaySexism and were certainly not positive, such as: “this wouldn’t have been the headline if it was a man! Shame on the telegraph” and “Daily Mail 1964: ‘Oxford Housewife Wins Nobel’ Sunday Telegraph 2014: ‘Mother of three poised to lead the BBC”.

To its limited credit, the Telegraph website did manage the more appropriate headline “In Rona Fairhead, the BBC may have found the formidable chief it needs”. But in print, unfortunately, the damage was already done, and for evermore.

Many mentioned the fact that Fairhead would be the first chairwoman, and that the Sunday Telegraph had referred to her as “chairman”. But the overwhelming response from commentators seemed to be a disappointment that the newspaper thought this would be a suitable headline: even cursory online research into Fairhead reveals a large amount about her career and the achievements relevant for the BBC role; details of her personal life, by contrast, rarely come up.

This may have been a case of the night editor – or perhaps sub editor, who would generally write headlines – trying to squeeze a quick headline into the news-in-brief article. But whatever the reasons, it was naïve of the newspaper to think this rather out-of-date slant on the story would not invoke a flurry of anger from readers and social media users.

Will Edwards is managing director of media training consultancy Bluewood Training

For more on these issues, check out these details on the forthcoming CMI seminar Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Making the Business Case.

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