“ The news is still, by and large, made by men for men. Research from the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), based on 114 countries and released today, shows that only 24 per cent of persons seen, heard or read about in the media are women. In online news reports the figure is almost the same, at 26 per cent. The findings amount to “a severe disparity between the representation of women and men in news media.”
– The Independent, November 23,2015*
When it comes to discussing issues of inequality people get uncomfortable. The good news is, I am not here to talk about whether or not inequality exists, the numbers show that. Instead, I want to talk about what we can do to fix it.
I was a participating researcher on the Irish team of this year’s Global Media Monitoring Report, and can honestly say the experience changed my understanding of the news. Though I had studied representation and news cycles in the past, as I poured over this particular data I was surprised. Digging through headline after headline, I was astounded to find virtually no stories about, or even authored by, women. The few stories I did find were for the most part, sitting in the gossip column. Certainly there were women who had stories to tell, and moreover, other women who wanted to tell those stories. But, where were were they?
The Media Gender Gap is a pervasive and widespread issue impacting female media professionals, the industry, and the wider public alike. Though the seldom-discussed inequality of female representation in the media, and by the media, is a large systemic issue there are simple steps we can all take to work towards a fairer industry, and more equal-society. Starting now.
By the end of this piece you will:
- Have a better understanding of the Media Gender Gap and your role within it.
- A simple, practical, and free step you can take everyday to help end media inequality.
The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) is a major international research initiative that has been running since the late 1990’s. The project focuses on tracking and analysing the representation of women in the media and is widely cited by the likes of the United Nations, among others. This year’s report unfortunately, uncovered a similar pattern to years past. The results prove gender equality in news stories or in media professions remains a serious and largely unchanging issue.
Although women make up about 50% of the general worldwide population, only 24% of the persons heard, read about or seen in news media are women. – GMMP
Among other staggering statistics the GMMP’s overriding findings illustrated that women are largely invisible in not only our news, but our newsrooms.
Only 37% of news media stories are reported on by women, globally.- GMMP
Even in the would-be “progressive” nations of Ireland/ Scotland/ England/Wales (the segment of the report I worked on), representation of women in the newsroom was disproportionately low. As only 32% of all news stories in the UK, Ireland-sample were written, or spoken by women.
How does the gap happen?
The question of “how” inequality happens is quite possibly the most complex and simultaneously important one. Unfortunately, the answer is multifaceted, non-definite, and constantly debated.
What we do know is that the media gender gap emerges is a range of different, but interdependent ways. There are too many dimensions of the issue for me to cover in the space of this article. Instead, I will touch three main ways inequality is entrenched in our media. The first type I will call “financial disparity” and the second, “objectification”. The third is arguably the most overlooked and the one the GMMP hones in on, “invisibility.”
The first factor, “financial disparity” is tied to the ways we try and discuss inequality within the realm of “industry” or “capitalism” . When we talk about inequality: race, gender, religion etc. in these contexts, we generally connect it to economic terms. How many cents does a woman make to a man’s dollar? How are her earnings influenced by childbirth? Even less obvious ones like: Why are there less females engineers?
These questions have explicit connections to monetary wealth. This is because we understand earnings and dollar signs to be an illustration of an individual’s relative worth, and overall quality of life. For this reason we can look at money and say: “If two people are equally qualified, and performing the same role, in the same environment, they should earn the same amount. If not, something is unequal”. Of course you could debate the reasons for this inequality, however, you could not debate the fact that one person earns more than the other. You could measure this, or set it up like a math equation and it would still make sense.
Activists, Researchers, and the general public love to talk about inequality in these terms because they are clear cut, concise, and hard to argue with. This is the dimension of “inequality” most of us have a baseline understanding of. This is not because it is necessarily the most important or only type of inequality, but because it’s the easiest to understand.
There is also a another type of inequality most of us understand. This is objectification. In recent years the objectification of women in the media has come to light, though it has certainly not gone away. When it comes to sexualising, or objectifying women, explaining the issue is relatively simple. Similar to “financial disparity”, “objectification” is easy to identify because it is something you can see and touch.
For example, we can hold a picture and say: “I see that woman, I see the environment she is positioned in, I see what she is wearing, I see the words surrounding her, etc.”
If there is a debate over “objectification” it would usually centre on the meaning or impact of an image, rather than the the existence of the image itself. The “artifact” (picture, text, image) that contains the inequality serves as proof, or at least, a tangible point for debate. In this way, objectification is a clear-cut, and relatively obvious form of inequality that for the most part we all understand.
So, why does invisibility matter? More importantly, what can you do about it today?
Lastly, there is invisibility. This is the dimension of inequality that the GMMP seemingly centred on. I would argue very few of us think about, understand, or consider, inequality in these terms because you guessed it, it is invisible.
Despite the lack of conversation surrounding the invisibility of women in the media, its effects are equally serious to other forms of discrimination. The impact of invisibility is bigger than the lack of women in professional media roles, it literally alters the news itself. Embedded in nearly every piece of news you consume (according to the statistics) is a predisposition to feature, discuss, and refer to exclusively, men.
Only 28% of Irish news “sources” (meaning the people quoted, interviewed or paraphrased) were women.The women who make up this 28% were as a majority in “homemaker” or “celebrity” roles, with an extreme disparity in contexts that called for “experts”. Females represented only 10% of the science technology/engineers mentioned overall; 15% of the teachers, academics, or educational professionals; and a mere 3% of athletes, or sports personnel included. – Regional statistics: UK, Ireland GMMP
So what is wrong with what the media is not showing us?
Before you ask: “what’s wrong with talking to men?“ Hear me out. Talking about or with men is not the problem; never speaking with, or about women, is.
Unsurprisingly, the report found that female journalists, were more likely to include female subjects within their writing. Proving that diversity in staff, feeds diversity in story.
- Women reporters were nearly twice as likely as men to write stories which had a central female focus and women were twice as likely to write stories which challenged gender stereotypes than men. – Regional statistics: UK, Ireland GMMP
A media researcher, John Thompson’s work better explains the social impact of invisibility in the media. Thompson claimed that the media was “the domain of the visible” in modern societies. He argued that it worked as not only the primary forum for publicising social values, but also a formative element of these values themselves.
Basically, according to Thompson, when things appear in the media, particularly in the news, they signal to the public: “Hey! this thing is worthy of your time and consideration. This thing matters.” When this message is disseminated, the ‘thing’ that was pushed out in the media,becomes immediately more important to the public.
Invisibility works covertly to the contrary. If things aren’t publicised in the media there is little chance we will find out about them, which limits our ability to care. This doesn’t mean they fail to exist, but rather, that we don’t know they exist. Which if you ask me, is pretty much the same thing.
This is kind of like the: “if a tree falls in the forest” scenario. If a tree falls, a person exists, an issue exists, but our news station doesn’t tell us, our ability to consider it vanishes.
Enough about what’s wrong, what can I do about it?
According to Thompson, and many other media studies, this process of invisibility is a two way thing. What the media tells us impacts how we think, but what we tell the media, impacts what they tell us. So, this is where you come in. And the best part is, you don’t even need to get up from the couch, or off of your smart phone.
When we seek out, spend time, and tweet about certain topics, the news listens. News networks operate off of a bottom line (no matter what they say!) and that bottom line is driven by you. Digital is the space where news consumer’s actions are the most quantifiable. Thus, what audiences read and share online has become a key element of how news networks determine what stories make the news.
The GMMP not only found that women were widely absent from mainstream news, but also, digital news and stories circulated through social media alike.
The report found that only 26% of online news reports included women. – GMMP
News producers know what you read, what you search, how long you spend reading, and even where your mouse hovers. In the constant bombardment of puppy/baby/fail videos it is hard to strike a balance between what you want to watch, and what you should watch. But this is what makes for a responsible news consumer.
Turns out, all that time we spend thinking of Kim Kardashian’s new outfit takes away from our consideration of other news items. But don’t worry, I am not saying you should never read the gossip column.
What I am saying is that: Your mouse, and your smart phone are the equivalent to your media ballot.
This doesn’t mean you have to delete Perez Hilton from your bookmarks. Instead, I am suggesting that you occasionally make a conscious effort to seek out a story about, or authored by, a woman. If you want to go one step further take that news story and talk about it. Do this once a week, once a day, and voila! You have done something useful, and can now call your internet procrastination meaningful.
Have you reinvented the wheel? No.
Abolished global oppression? No.
Sent a message to your news providers that you want to hear from and about women. Yes.
A small step in the right direction, all from the comfort of your smart phone. What’s not to like about that?