Invisible in the Media

Back in the eighteenth century, the Anglo Irish philosopher George Berkeley summarized his theory of "immaterialism'' in the following dictum: to be is to be perceived.

It is safe to assume that the gender problematic was the furthest consideration from the good bishop's mind when he came up with this insight, but his philosophical epiphany aptly describes the plight of women worldwide when it comes to media coverage: they are either absent from the news, and so cannot be perceived since they are not there, or they are included within certain narrow parameters that limit a full perception of their societal contribution. This state of affairs varies globally, but in general women and girls are seldom featured in journalism as narrators of their own experience or as authoritative sources on any given topic. In addition, whenever they are featured, it is in stereotypical roles.

A few years ago, I spent a considerable amount of time in various countries conducting journalism training. My co-instructor and I always ran a quick content audit of the local newspapers before launching our workshops: we would go through an edition and count the number of pages until we came across a photograph of a woman illustrating a story. Editors typically group what they consider the most important and meaty stories in the front section. It was not at all uncommon to thumb through this entire section and not find a single female image. There were plenty of pictures of males standing behind microphones or behind desks in positions that suggested power and control. No women. Television was worse. Youth and good looks were a prerequisite to stand in front of the camera. Where were the mature and experienced female reporters? The presence of females as authoritative voices was also lacking in the science, financial and sports copy. My co-instructor and I still recall with amazement a story about women and breast cancer that included not one female source -- neither patient nor doctor; the only individuals interviewed were male physicians.

Matters have improved somewhat since those days. Still, a study of African media released in February 2009 by the International Women's Media Foundation in preparation for training in reporting on women and agriculture, showed that women were almost invisible in African media. The assessment found that just 11 per cent of the sources were women, and that women were the focal point of just 7 per cent of the stories dealing with the topic of agriculture, even though women produced 70 per cent of the food in this region. In other words, the key players in the agriculture story were being ignored. How then could the news consumer be expected to understand the issue?

And while it was heartening to recently come across a story about a female entrepreneur in one French-language newspaper, I was equally dismayed when almost immediately I noticed another story about the fact that short women may have trouble finding a husband!

In broadcast journalism, the focus on biased superficiality persists. The clothing, makeup and hairdo of power¬ful female public figures is scrutinized obsessively and receives the same attention as their views and positions on vital issues, while no journalist can be bothered to comment on the wrinkled suit or the mismatched shirt and tie of an overweight male politician. Meanwhile, the tragedies of victims of rape in high conflict areas, or the daily abuses suffered by women in certain societies where they are deprived of their basic rights, or the enslavement of tens of thousands of women by rings of human traffickers continue to go unreported. Most newsroom leaders do not perceive these unspeakable crimes as news stories meriting investment of resources.

This distorted portrayal of women and girls in the global media is not the product of chance. It is the direct result of a multitude of factors, mainly the way in which journalism worldwide is practiced, as well as the intrinsic nature of newsrooms. Journalists write against the clock. Frequently, the pressures of the daily collection of news give journalists no time to diversify sources or forage for new voices that might not be readily available or even reliable. Hence, they tend to go back to the same source over and over. New and upcoming women entrepreneurs, for example, will not be favoured as sources over a long-time male bank officer who has been interviewed before.

News products look for impact. In an increasingly competitive and fragmented media landscape, it is much easier to attract the attention of the viewer or the reader with a scantily clad young woman than with a serious but unglamorous discussion on the decaying sewage infrastructure.

Finally, the nature of journalism, with its hectic and unpredictable schedules and unreasonable time demands, stacks the deck against women, who are still the main managers of family households and the principal caretakers of children.

New forms of media may yet introduce fundamental changes to the manner in which consumers process news and other information, but so far there is no evidence that technological advances will magically solve professional inequities or inequities in coverage.

Underlying the constraints of the journalistic craft is the fact that newsrooms are a reflection of the societies within which they operate. The glass ceiling in the media industry is a reality. This inequality among media workers, which applies to all forms of media -- be it television, print, radio and now even the Internet -- is but an extension of the gender inequality in society as a whole. Women are still at the receiving end of discrimination in many professional arenas, and journalism is no exception.

It is always instructive to look at those black and white pictures of old newsrooms: an army of men in shirt sleeves, cigarettes dangling from their lips, editing reams of copy with fat pencils or furiously typing on their Royals. If there is a woman present, she is either serving coffee or answering phones.

There is a deep-rooted sense of entitlement that prevents males from even considering the issue of gender equality as relevant. This is not to say that there are no individual organizations that value women's leadership or that there are no male news executives committed to promoting females and female viewpoints in coverage. But by and large, the media industry is still stuck in an antiquated framework, a male-dominated enclave where frustrated female journalists find that the promise of equality, let alone of the possibility of command, is still unrealized. This state of affairs has a direct impact on news coverage. There is no critical mass of women to institutionalize gender issues in the news agenda.

Few women make it to top news-management positions, and many of those who do opt to take on the characteristics of their male colleagues as the price to pay for advancement and at the expense of prioritizing gender equity. A colleague of mine, to this day a prominent executive in the newspaper industry in the United States, did not particularly care for golf but joined her male colleagues on the course because that was the only way to be included in crucial conversations. She saw the time she spent playing as an extension of her workday, not as relaxation. She could not risk setting herself apart as a "woman" in the newsroom by highlighting gender issues, either through her personal behaviour or explicit advocacy.

Prejudices persist even as there is increasing acceptance of women managers. Existing networking structures in the media, defined by men, discourage women from active participation. If they speak up boldly, women managers are considered annoying and emotional. If they do not press their points of view, they are perceived as incompetent. I witnessed one of my male bosses, the executive editor of a large metropolitan newspaper, parody a fellow female executive who had expressed an opinion he did not agree with, in order to show his senior team just how deeply he discounted her comments. I never saw him making fun of male peers, no matter how inane he found their observations or how much he disagreed with their positions.

The disparity in status between men and women is perhaps the most critical and practical challenge we face in our understanding of how we can determine a path to achieve a more just society. Media must be a mirror that reflects reality accurately, and so far it has fallen woefully short when it comes to the comprehensive and fair depiction of women and girls.

As a first step in the effort to promote a reconfiguration of the news agenda to include female voices in a meaningful and fair manner, the International Women's Media Foundation is conducting the most comprehensive survey ever attempted on the status of women in the media worldwide. Executives in over 500 media houses globally have been interviewed on issues such as equity in compensation, opportunities for professional advancement and access to continued training for women journalists. The results of this study will serve as a blueprint for a platform of action to work to remedy the inequities that currently exist in newsrooms. Enough women in positions of power in the newsroom, women capable of acknowledging that every story is a potential gender story, will be an instrumental factor in creating the conditions that will ensure equality of coverage.

Stories only happen to those who can tell them. Once the proper structures in the media industry are in place, those invisible female voices will get the opportunity to be heard.