Progress in achieving gender equality in the the global news media, measured both by those who deliver it and those featured in it, has effectively "ground to a halt" over the past half-decade, according to a new report.
The Global Media Monitoring Project's (GMMP) latest five-year study of women's representation in media, released on Monday at the United Nations, found that females still made up less than a quarter of the people "heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news." That figure, estimated at 24 percent, was unchanged from what the GMMP observed in 2010. The authors of the report found that a shift to digital platforms has only replicated existing disparities — a dismal 26 percent of stories in online mediums featured women as subjects.
Out of 54 subject areas tallied by researchers, women were featured the majority of the time in only four categories — stories that involved female politicians; stories on birth control, fertility, sterilization and abortion; family relations; and a basket of topics that include beauty contests, modelling, fashion, and cosmetic surgery, in which two thirds of the subjects depicted in media coverage were women.
Among the subject areas with the worst gender equality among those featured were national defense, foreign policy, economics and peace negotiations. Even in the global media's coverage of the UN's Millennium Development Goals and it's Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, women were only highlighted in 19 percent of stories that researchers studied. Researchers found that male and female government officials — members of government, politicians, ministers and spokespeople — are the most common occupations represented in the news media. After that, common professions and titles broke on traditional gender lines. Men were involved in business, or were managers and police, while women were often students, homemakers or entertainment professionals — including simply being a "celebrity."
"When girls and women do not see themselves in the news media, then it's a problem," said Sarah Macharia, program manager at the World Association for Christian Communication and lead researcher at GMPP. "When you find inequalities being propagated and being normalized in the news media, which is supposed to tell the world as it is… then it becomes a problem that crosses over into women's reality. In that sense, it has a direct impact on the lives of women and girls."
Moves towards gender equity among those who deliver the news was similarly stagnant. In the US, where women made up 34 percent of newsroom staff in the 1980s, today they fill roughly 37 percent of positions. Issues facing women in media workplaces ranged from sexual harassment to the need to "juggle multiple identities that their male counterparts often do not" — a phenomenon acutely felt among black women in the US television industry and women across the Arab world, according to the report.
While women outnumber men as television presenters across the world, they make up only 38 percent of those tasked with actually reporting news on air. Women employed as presenters or reporters grew by the greatest proportion over the past 20 years in Latin America — from 16 percent to 29 percent today.
Overall, women made up 50 percent of presenters and reporters in the Middle East, while North America held some of the lowest spots in the survey — only 26 percent of reporters and radio presenters were women. North America, said the report's authors, "defies the trend with its large gender gaps in newscasts."
"Scholars posit that the overwhelmingly male composition of the profession has led to the masculine values that have come to define news value — the criteria used to determine what is 'news' — and that the socialization process in the newsroom further reproduces these values," said the report.
Even in regions where women are often employed as presenters and reporters, they are rarely the subject of stories. In the Middle East, only 18 percent of news subjects in print, radio and television news were women in 2015 — half the proportion seen in North America. In Africa, 22 percent of subjects were women; in Europe 25 percent; in the Pacific 26 percent; and in Latin America 29 percent.
And when they are featured in news stories, women most often appear relaying their personal experiences, a role that "can be fulfilled by anyone and requires no special subject knowledge or expertise," said the report. As women age, they all but disappear as spokespersons or experts. Only two percent of appearances made by women aged 65 and older were as experts or commentators, and 6 percent were as spokesperson. According to the study, the same figures for men were 12 and 23 percent, respectively.
These disparities have crossed into the digital realm. "Women's near absence is most acute in transnational media online news where they comprise 15 percent of news subjects," said the report.
Often seen as a medium primed to transmit the progressive ideals of younger generations, Macharia said that this online replication of existing inequities was particularly concerning.
"It sends a message of what is acceptable and what girls should strive for, especially the young ones who are trying to understand the world and are getting their cues about how to relate to one another, and get those cues from the media," said Macharia. "Some might say they are nor all gullible and they can tell what is a caricature and what is unrealistic, but those that have studies stereotyping say that those stereotypes play out in real life."
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