Striking the media gender balance

By Jane Dutton

This month the world celebrated International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter with the hope of moving towards a more gender-balanced world.

International Women’s Day (IWD) looks to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women across the globe and marks a call to action for accelerating gender equality.

Under this year’s campaign banner of #BalanceforBetter, the 8th of March marked 108 years of the day being recognised, with the first IWD having occurred as far back as 1911. And, yes, certainly huge strides have been made over the decades – but we’ve yet to cover enough distance.

Closer to home, for gender balance to be the “real deal” in South Africa, it needs to occur across the full spectrum of day-to-day life: gender-balanced boardrooms, a gender balance of employees within the workplace, more gender balance in wealth creation, greater gender balance on the sports field (particularly when a female cyclist catches up to her male counterparts), and a gender-balanced government. Although admittedly   ̶  as a nation  ̶  we don’t do too badly in that last field.

And, of course, very close to my own heart, we need far better gender-balanced media coverage. So let’s talk about that.

It’s the habit of the media to still reference women not in the context of their own personal or professional achievements, but in reference to the gender role they play in their relationships to the men in their lives. And so, we hear Dr Tshepo Motsepe referred to not in her role as a medical doctor with a Master of Public Health in Maternal Child Health and Ageing from the Harvard School of Public Health, or as a member of the many boards on which she sits. Instead, we hear her referred to in an obscure third-person reference as either “President Ramaphosa’s wife”. Or even “Patrice Motsepe’s sister”.

I’d place a bet on the fact that many reading this didn’t even know about Dr Motsepe’s other achievements, thanks to the way in which the media tends to skew gender reporting.

American philanthropist and author Tabitha King, she of bestselling books such as Pearl, One on One and Caretakers, earlier this month took on the cause of gender equality in the media with a series of tweets criticising how women are labelled in the media. And her author husband fully supports her. That would be Stephen, by the way, as in the husband of Tabitha King.

This followed an acknowledgement in various media of a sizable donation – the idea of which Tabitha came up with – made by her and her husband to the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The headlines began with “Stephen King and his wife donate $1.25m …”

As Tabitha says in one of her tweets: “Wife is a relationship or status. It’s not an identity.”

And this is not a case, as some may suggest, of us little ladies getting our knickers in a knot and imagining gender shadows in the dark: according to an article published by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, research conducted in more than 100 countries found that 46% of all news stories across print, radio and on television uphold gender stereotypes, while only 6% highlight gender equality. In addition, 73% of all top media management positions across 522 media news organisations globally are occupied by men.

Another study published jointly by the Universities of Bristol and Cardiff highlights how media isn’t just by men; it’s about men too. Drawing on 2.3 million media examples from 950 online news outlets over the course of six months, it was found that men were represented far more often than females in both images and text, with women far more likely to feature in photographs and other illustrative material than in written news text. As the study notes: “Women, it turns out, are to be seen and not heard in the media.”

For the record, the study also revealed how underrepresented other populations are, like the LGBQTIA+ community as well as people of colour and the disabled.

The studies continue. Established in 2005 by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem to raise the visibility, viability and decision-making power of women in the media, the Women’s Media Centre’s latest report on The Status of Women in US Media 2019, which reflects across 94 studies conducted, reveals a wealth of information on the gender gap. However, an interesting bit worth mentioning is that it found that media corporations with women and minorities in leadership were more profitable.

This came out of a study produced by global management consultants McKinsey & Co, which concluded that the top 25% of companies with a gender-diverse executive team were also 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

So perhaps, when the bottom line’s at stake, the balance will finally begin to shift.

More stories in Issue 109

Contributors

Jane Dutton

Jane Dutton is a South African broadcast journalist who began her career with the SABC before spending time on air with BBC World, CNN, CNBC and Al Jazeera. She returned to South Africa in 2018 after 25 years abroad and is the host of eNCA’s news talk show Tonight with Jane Dutton.

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