The media is a prism through which society sees itself. It shapes what we think about, what we believe and what we do. So when gender imbalance exists in the news media, these same imbalances often play out in society, leaving room for gender stereotypes, pay gaps and sexual harassment. As we mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we the media need to reflect on how women are portrayed in the news, the barriers women journalists face on the job and solutions to improving gender balance in our news.
Women make up half of the world. And yet when it comes to certain industries, like the media, women hardly represent half of the workforce or the content that we consume. Despite gains, thanks to social awareness campaigns like the #MeToo Movement or Brazil’s #DeixaElaTrabalhar (#LetHerWork), only one in four people we hear, read about or see in newspapers, on the television and radio news are women, according to the most recent global figures from the 2015 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP). These figures haven’t budged since the last GMMP report in 2010.
Much of the reason behind such dismal figures stems from how women are seen in society itself. Deeply ingrained stereotypes about women, which vary by region, contribute to how women participate in the news, whether as journalists and editors or sources. And if media companies aren’t careful, they can easily reinforce existing stereotypes or create new ones, perpetuating gender imbalances in their news content or within their workforce.
“Patriarchy has been the biggest challenge to ensuring that gender balance is achieved,” says Jane Godia, East and Central Africa Project Manager and key gender trainer for WAN-IFRA’s Women in News project. “Through socialisation, it’s been determined that men must be leaders and final decision-makers. In this, women have ended up being discriminated against when there are opportunities that could be shared equally.”
An important indicator of how women are portrayed in the media is how they are used as sources. Sometimes external forces are to blame. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women must ask permission of fathers or husbands before responding to the press. This leads to a lack of self-confidence, especially when it comes to commenting on political or economic issues, which can cause women sources to back away from publicly commenting. Thus in the interest of time and ease, a journalist may bypass using a woman source in place of a man.
“Some women, for example in vox-pops, are afraid of being interviewed,” says Helen Kadirire, a journalist at the Daily News in Zimbabwe. “They are afraid of what their husbands, family and society will think of them if they are seen in a newspaper article.”
When it comes to expert sources, the GMMP 2015 shows that, globally, women are used just 19% of the time and as spokespeople 23% of the time. These figures vary slightly by region, with the highest rates in North American and Latin American news, which use women as expert sources 32% and 27% of the time, respectively. But overall, great gains must be made in using more women for their expertise in the news, whether in print, digital, radio or television.
In the MENA region, women’s voices are most lacking in male-dominated fields, like politics or economics, where women have not been given the space to be sources and lack the confidence to voice their opinions. It’s a phenomenon that affects the media around the world.
“My challenge with women sources is that they are scarce across all fields,” says Gosego Motsumi, a senior journalist at The Botswana Gazette in Botswana. “When you make appointments for interviews, they give you the runaround because they have ‘a lot’ on their plate. The interviews never really materialise.”
And like in many parts of the world, the problem often starts with the journalist herself. “Women journalists may face safety issues while reporting from conflict zones, or the threat of visibility and harassment when working in highly conservative societies”, says Fatemah Farag, the MENA Director of Women in News. This can affect how they report on a story and the type of source or content they use.
In Nigeria, for example, many are against women in leadership positions, a commonly held belief in other parts of Africa. This under-representation of women journalists on the continent contributes to scepticism around a woman’s role in the media profession, which inevitably affects content.
When women are finally represented in the media, articles and broadcasts often use outdated gender tropes, portraying women in traditional roles such as wives, mothers or homemakers as opposed to CEOs or politicians.
Or women may be described as ‘emotional’ or ‘hysterical’, typecasting them as less successful, educated or authoritative than men, and putting them at an immediate disadvantage. This leads to an overall lack of trust in the press by women. In Zimbabwe, for example, the large amount of negative coverage of women leads them to shy away from speaking to the media.
“Many women are uncomfortable with facing the press and feel they would not get a fair report. This fear is well-founded,” says Tikhala Chibwana, the Director for Women In News Africa. “Most of the time when women are covered in the media, it is either because they are victims or they have done something wrong. For that reason, many women want to stay clear of the press.”
For all the challenges, however, there are solutions. Bloomberg, for example, has a dynamic database of women experts to ensure that its journalists have access to a woman expert on any topic. They are also training senior or expert women within various industries on media and communication skills so that these women have the confidence to be high quality expert sources.
Knowing how to be gender balanced is also crucial. The media industry can train journalists to be gender balanced in their reporting – through their use of language and subject, to ensure that women’s voices carry as much weight as those of men.
These solutions work best when we as an industry are committed to change. And this commitment has to be across the board – from senior management to junior reporters. Organisational culture is just as important as putting clear gender policies and strategies in place.
“It will take time for media managers and the public to have confidence in women's voices as sources and subjects of news, and also women being appreciated as leaders and managers in the newsroom,” says Jane Godia. “But if the media as an industry and individual media houses take it upon themselves to address gender discrimination and gender stereotypes, then the barriers will [one day] be removed.”