A Look at Women’s Invisibility in the Media
Seventy percent of the global health workforce on clinical frontlines are women but you probably have not read many of their stories in this pandemic. This is because the voice of every woman is drowned out by up to three men. In the past years many people in the think tank world have focused on gender-balanced panels in events, but less attention has been given so far to gender balance in the media; that is, the perspectives of women in analysis and commenting on societal and political developments that make it on the front page of newspapers.
Data collected globally are not encouraging. According to The Global Media Monitoring Project, between 1995 and 2015, the share of women cited in the media has increased only from 17 percent to 24 percent. Women are not only underrepresented, but their role is also undervalued: often journalists do not refer to female leaders with the same words that would be used for men, describing them as compassionate or enthusiastic instead of analytical and competent. Media too often reflect the stereotypes that portray women as incompetent in some subjects, like economy, management, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In addition, the questions women are asked indicate unequal treatment. Typically, they are asked to share their personal experience or convictions, rather than being questioned as authoritative sources on a subject. The research explains that these inequalities in media practices have real consequences as women are not recognized as providing valuable, factual contributions to societal subject matters worthy of the front page.
To delve into this issue, some of us at the GMF Brussels office monitored the front pages of four newspapers—the Financial Times, The New York Times, Politico and Belgium’s Knack—for two and a half weeks between February and March to see how often women were quoted. The papers were selected to represent a diversity in terms of offering a national, European, U.S. and transatlantic perspective, and because it was possible to access their front page online without restrictions. For the analysis, we categorized the occupation of people as civil society, experts, politicians, private sector, and public sector. The content of the articles was also categorized as climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, economics, gender, and politics. It emerged that a third of the people quoted (30.49 percent) were women. Most of the women mentioned were politicians (24.71 percent) like their male counterparts (37.41 percent). This corresponds to UN Women data that list the number of women in national governments at 25 percent. The second-most cited category was “experts” (19.77 percent). While very few worked in other fields: for example, two women worked for civil society and two in the public sector.
Regarding the topics, 33.33 percent of women were asked to comment on U.S. politics (local elections, Congress, President Biden) and 17.55 percent about the coronavirus pandemic. Following this were gender-related subject matters; that is, domestic and gender violence, discrimination and childcare (7.89 percent). Climate-change-related articles only accounted for 2.76 percent and politics/elections—news about local polls, intra-party tensions, or possible candidacies—1.38 percent.
The New York Times was undoubtedly the outlet that seems to dedicate more space to women. Nevertheless, generally women remain underrepresented, and the front page seems still dominated by masculine perspectives. In the case of the Financial Times, the underrepresentation of women was even slightly worse than the ratio of women in government (25 percent).
With societies paying increasingly attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion, following the #metoo movement, greater gender- and diversity-awareness should be increasingly central to the media since this provides a more accurate reporting. Moreover, it is a business incentive as customers, especially younger ones, are increasingly sensitive to these issues. Independent newspapers can play an important role within democratic societies: they move people’s opinions, and they influence markets and places of power. There are some positive initiatives to highlight. The BBC News 50:50 project has been launched to reach equity by increasing the presence of underrepresented categories in the media. Male journalists—like Fergus Bell, founder of Fathm and board member of the Online News Association—have started to support their female colleagues by sharing good practices for male allies. Another useful example is The Brussels Binder, which not only provides an online database of over 1,700 women policy experts but also created a toolkit for journalists on how to make the media more gender-inclusive. While many newspapers begin to have dedicated spaces on gender and women’s professional development, giving more space to women’s voices on the front page is a real a sign of more inclusive and, in many cases, accurate journalism.
With thanks to Simon Desmet for his assistance in data gathering.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.