The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about the words EXECUTIVE EDUCATION Can women be 'taught' to lead? on the front cover of the July 2011 issue of HRmonthly, a magazine aimed at human resources professionals. The words sought to attract interest in an article inside the magazine about the relatively low number of women on company boards and in senior executive positions and the potential for education in leadership to help increase that number.
Fleur Blum said that the article was "a perfectly reasonable article about the roadblocks to having better representation on executive boards", but complained that the words on the cover were offensive, patronising to women and used "revolting, sexist, misogynist language to entice the reader to open the magazine". These criticisms were based mainly on a belief that the words implied women might be inherently incapable of being or becoming leaders. She also complained that the magazine had responded “flippantly” when she expressed her concerns to it.
The magazine denied that the words on the cover had the offensive and patronising meaning which she attributed to them and it rejected the other criticisms, relying partly on opinions which it said had been expressed by a number of women. It therefore declined to apologise to Ms Blum, although it regretted that she had been offended.
The Council has concluded that the words on the cover were reasonably capable of being interpreted in the way suggested by Ms Blum but were also reasonably capable of being seen as drawing attention to the main theme of the article without carrying any inference adverse to women. Accordingly, it does not consider that they were so gravely offensive as to justify upholding the complaint.
The Council emphasises, nevertheless, that great care should be taken to avoid publishing words which may be interpreted by some people as highly offensive even if they were not intended to be. This applies especially to words on a cover, which may be read in isolation from the article to which they relate. The Council notes that after the initial response to which Ms Blum objected, the magazine responded to her complaint with care and respect.
Notes (not required for publication by the magazine):
This adjudication is based on the Council’s General Principle No 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence”.