FRIDAY FILE: In the struggle for gender equality, the media should a powerful ally. Unfortunately it strongly reinforces the status quo, particularly in the Global South.
By Kathambi Kinoti
Fifteen years after the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) was adopted, women’s voices are still largely absent from the mainstream media. Recognising the powerful role of the media in shaping perspectives, the BPfA makes comprehensive recommendations to improve the visibility and voice of women and promote balanced and non-stereotypical portrayals of women. Some of the recommendations are:
- To change the continued projection of negative and degrading images of women in programming.
- To enhance women’s skills, knowledge and access to information technology in order to improve their ability to combat negative portrayals of women.
- To mainstream gender in media programming and policy.
A media monitoring study carried out in twelve southern African countries found that stereotypes abound and are actively promoted by the media. The report’s authors write: “Potentially having a huge role to play in this ‘liberation of the mind,’ the media has more often than not been part of the problem rather than of the solution.” Women are typically portrayed by the press as sex objects, temptresses, mothers or wives. When newspapers, radio or television stations need an expert on a subject, they are less likely to call upon a woman. The study found that women politicians, who on average formed 18 percent of the region’s parliaments, were rarely news sources, being quoted only 8 percent of the time.
The majority of workers in the media at all levels are still men whether they be reporters or decision makers. The only area in which women achieve a level of parity is as television presenters – but they have an expiry date; they are usually aged 34 or below. Women over the age of 35 become invisible in the media according to the southern Africa study and the GMMP findings. This reinforces stereotypes about young women’s desirability and older women’s lack of it, something that does not affect male presenters on the same levels.
The voice and visibility of female journalists has improved somewhat since the BPfA. However they are more likely to be assigned “soft” news reporting: the arts, entertainment and lifestyle, while “hard” news – politics, the economy, government – remains a largely male domain. The figures reported by the GMMP make a solid case for increasing the numbers and influence of women in the media. Female journalists are more likely to feature female subjects and to rely on female experts than are male journalists. They are also more likely to consider a gender dimension to stories that would otherwise be gender-blind.
The GMMP report makes a number of recommendations that urge a greater leading role for civil society in promoting positive representations of women in the media. Some of these are:
- Compile regional directories of women experts on diverse thematic issues. Women are typically portrayed as being experts only on gender equality, beauty, fashion and home-making, but in reality, they are present in all other fields of human endeavour and should be recognised as such.
- Create gender and media curricula in journalism schools. Gender and women’s rights awareness should be infused into all aspects of journalists’ work, so that women’s empowerment is not only covered in special interest stories but is an issue that is understood thoroughly and is actively promoted.
- Media decision-makers should receive gender-awareness training that challenges the deeply ingrained – and often unconscious – biases against women.
- Adopt and apply policies on gender parity in the media. There needs to be an equal presence of men and women at all levels from reporters to management.
- Support women in the media by offering them training and visibility.
- Establish gender-sensitive media codes of practice that hold media houses accountable for their reporting. It is unethical for them to continue to peddle skewed representations of women.
- Encourage media monitoring by civil society organisations.