December 4, 2020

A report released this week found a stubbornly persistent underrepresentation of women in news organizations (especially at leadership and governance levels), as experts cited in reports, and as protagonists of news stories. 

The 178-page “The Missing Perspectives of Women in News” report was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and delivers a grim state of women’s representation both in newsrooms and in news media coverage across six countries, including the United States. The other examined countries are India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

“In the 21st century, news is produced mainly by men, featuring more men, and is consumed by more men,” Luba Kassova, the author of the report and co-founder and director of AKAS (an international audience strategy consultancy), said in a virtual media briefing Tuesday. “Women’s share of quoted voice in news remains marginalized and we have seen no substantive progress being made in the last decade, based on the data that we had.”

Persistent patriarchal values operating across societies are at the heart of the problem, according to Kassova. The proportion of women journalists in newsrooms has remained flat since 2000 across all analyzed countries. Women are also between two and six times less likely to be quoted in news as experts, protagonists or sources in the six countries, according to Kassova. Another challenge brought up in Tuesday’s briefing is that coverage of gender equality issues is virtually absent from the news in the countries studied. You can read the full report here.

Pamella Makotsi-Sittani, the executive editor of the Nation Media Group headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, said the report revealed a double crisis. 

“It’s a man’s world, and it continues to be a man’s world 25 years after the Beijing Declaration,” the Kenyan journalist said during the briefing. The Beijing Declaration was an agreement signed by 189 governments that set a guide to combating barriers to global gender equality. “So we’ve not seen any progress since that time, and in newsrooms across the world it’s the men who are mainly making the decisions. And even where we have women in leadership, like in my own organization, women are still outnumbered and cannot truly call the shots.”

Makotsi-Sittani said the other crisis is how women’s voices “have been muffled by the media.” “This is a crisis that we need to look at because, if we do not have the perspectives of both men and women in society, we cannot have an equal society,” she said.

Susan Byrnes, chief communications officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the media sector has a huge role to play in shaping how women are perceived as leaders and role modeling what women’s representation can look like.

“The foundation commissioned this report as part of a broader effort for media government, private sector, civil society and philanthropic organizations like ours to identify what specific actions they will commit on gender equality,” Byrnes said. 

There was some good news highlighted by Kassova in the briefing, including but not limited to research finding that the United States and the United Kingdom perform best in terms of stated public attitudes of supporting gender equality, and that South Africa leads in terms of political representation and representation of women in newsroom leadership.

She outlined recommendations in the report, and a gender parity checklist that she highly encourages news providers to look at.

“Because it’s so systemic and deep, change can only occur if it is encouraged on an individual level, organizational level, system level or societal level,” Kassova said. “If one of those factors moves in the wrong direction, then changes are not sustainable and, in fact, there is regression happening.”

Her three key strategic recommendations for news organizations are to:

  • Introduce more persuasive narrative frames to galvanize journalists to champion gender equality in news.
  • Create industry-wide initiatives, awards and a tracker that measures systematically the gender balance at every part of the news value chain.
  • Develop and implement more behavioral science-based interventions aimed to “change behaviors” and de-bias.

According to the report summary, the nine research methods included: a multi-discipline review of 2,286 academic articles which were whittled down to the 30 most insightful ones; news content analysis of 11,913 publications and 56.9 million stories; and a Google Trends analysis of the public’s searches for “International Women’s Day” in the six analyzed countries.

Though the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was alone in its commission of the report, it coordinated with the International Women’s Media Foundation to promote it. (Disclosure: I was an Adelante Fellow with IWMF in 2017)According to a communications officer with the Gates Foundation, the report comes ahead of next year’s Generation Equality Forum, a global gathering for gender equality, convened by UN Women and co-chaired by France and Mexico, that will be taking place in Paris in June 2021.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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