Media Coverage of Women and Women's Issues
Women and News
Although there has been a steady increase in the number of women professionals over the past 20 years, most mainstream press coverage continues to rely on men as experts in the fields of business, politics and economics. Women in the news are spoken about with language that has sexist connotations and are more likely to be featured in stories about accidents, natural disasters, or domestic violence than in stories about their professional abilities or expertise.
Inadequate women’s coverage seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. A 2015 report conducted by the Global Monitoring Media Project found that women only make up 24% “of the persons heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news, exactly as they did in 2010.”[i] Furthermore, women only make up 19% of experts featured in news stories and 37% of reporters telling stories globally. BBC has committed to changing this in their news coverage with their 50:50 project, which hopes to increase female representation in media. In four months, they increased their on-air female contributors from 39% to 50%. While news shows may have little control over the newsmakers featured in current events, they can control the “contributors, experts and reporters they turn to every day.”[ii]
Similarly, a 2019 study found that 37% of bylines in news around the world were women’s,[iii] while a survey of Canadian news found that just 29% of sources quoted in print and broadcast news were women. Ed Yong, a reporter for The Atlantic, made a point of trying to interview an equal number of women as men and found that doing so took just an extra fifteen minutes per article.[iv] In doing so, Yong identified a number of resources specifically aimed at connecting reporters with women who are experts in different fields, including Diverse Sources, Request a Woman Scientist and Informed Opinions.[v]
When women appear in broadcast news, they are typically held to different standards than men. A sample of 401 journalists found that “female journalists were found to be more attractive and display fewer signs of aging” than men, while “grey hair, balding, wrinkles, and extra weight were more common in men than in women.” Hispanic and Black women were also expected to conform to white beauty standards such as having straight hair, with only one Black journalist wearing her hair in natural curls.[vi]
Coverage of Women in Politics
Women in politics are similarly sidelined. A 2019 survey of female members of parliament found that 86% had been treated differently as a woman in politics.[vii]Rachel Blaney, MP for North Island-Powell River in B.C., said that “during the 2015 campaign, I was asked repeatedly if I was ‘tough enough’ for the job. When I asked for clarification, no one had an answer as to what they meant. I’ve asked numerous men if they were ever asked this, and the response is always no.”[viii]
“Women in our society are supposed to be pleasing, kind, and somewhat deferential… so a woman who comes across as decisive and tough may also be frowned upon for being ‘nasty’ or ‘shrill’ — for ostensibly violating feminine stereotypes of ‘likeability.”[ix]
Media criticism of women in politics is often based not on their positions or achievements, but on how well or poorly they fit expected gender roles. What women are wearing is often given more attention than what they say. Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, a 2018 U.S. congressional candidate, has said that the reason women follow a strict dress code in politics is because “we want people to focus on us, and what we are saying. Not what we are wearing.”
Peter Glick, a sociology professor at Lawrence University, points out that “focusing on what women are wearing is one way of reinstating a gender hierarchy and a way of diminishing women’s capabilities.” Black women often have to take extra measures to fit into the stereotypical image of a political woman as there is more pressure to “keep [their] hair a certain way.” Maxine Waters, a prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives, has said she has to have her hair relaxed to be “taken seriously in Congress and in the media.”[x]
These gendered portrayals of women in politics start early. A study of the classroom publication TIME for Kids found that while many women world leaders were featured, their portrayals nearly always focused on their being the first woman in a particular post, rather than their actual accomplishments, or described as having stereotypically feminine traits.[xi]
Women and Sports
Women athletes are also given short shrift in the media: men account for 96% of sports news on TV and on ESPN, the world top-ranked sports website.[xii]Even though 40% of games played are women’s sports, they receive only 4% of media coverage.[xiii]
Commentators use different language when they talk about female athletes. Where men are described as “big,” “strong,” “brilliant,” “gutsy” and “aggressive,” women are more often referred to as “weary,” “fatigued,” “frustrated,” “panicked,” “vulnerable” and “choking.”[xiv]While open sexism is less common than it once was, commentators’ language when speaking of women’s sports is “diluted and indifferent,” with less “vigour and excitement than… when covering male athletes.” Commentators will often mention their role as a parent or romantic partner prior to speaking about their athletic news or ability – something which almost never occurs when talking about men.[xv] They are also twice as likely to call men by their last names only, and three times as likely to call women by their first names only, “reduc[ing] female athletes to the role of children, while giving adult status to white male athletes.”[xvi]
The Prix Déméritas (Brickbat Prize) for sexist reporting was awarded by Quebec’s Gazette des femmes to the journalists who covered the 2000 International Women’s Tennis Cup. The Gazette des femmes noted in particular the journalists’ keen interest in any of the athletes’ poses that could be seen as suggestive, as well as the excessive attention accorded Anna Kournikova—for her beauty rather than her game.[xvii] This was seen again in 2015 at the Australian Open Tennis Tournament with Canadian tennis star and runner up Eugenie Bouchard, who was asked by a male interviewer to “give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit.” Commentators referred to the players as “girls,” making the women seem insignificant and childlike compared to the men.[xviii]
Media images of women in sports are also very different from the familiar pictures of male athletes in action. Sports media typically avoids portraying female athletes as aggressive, competitive or dominant, instead presenting them in in what “hyper-sexualized” poses.[xix] The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by tennis great Billie Jean King, has stated that images of women in sports media “are portrayed in sexually provocative or non-athletic poses instead of moving or posing as authentic athletically skilled performers.”[xx]
[i] Global media monitoring project (2015). Who makes the news? Retrieved from http://cdn.agilitycms.com/who-makes-the-news/Imported/reports2015/global/gmmpglobalreporten.pdf
[ii] Bohnet, I et al (2019) Tackling the underrepresentation of women in media. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/06/tackling-the-underrepresentation-of-women-in-media
[iii] Deutsh, Gabby. In the Year of the Woman, Many Were Missing From International Reporting. The Atlantic, February 11 2019.
[iv] Yong, Ed. “I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories.” The Atlantic, February 2018. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/i-spent-two-years-trying-to-fix-the-gender-imbalance-in-my-stories/552404
[v] Morris, Marika. (2016) (Rep.) Gender of sources used in major Canadian media. Informed Opinions. Retrieved from https://informedopinions.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Gender-of-sources-in-Canadian-media-Informed-Opinions-FINAL.pdf
[vi] Angela, M et al (2018). Female television journalists have stricter norms for appearance. Retrieved from http://journalismresearchnews.org/article-female-television-journalists-have-stricter-norms-for-appearance/
[vii] Chatelaine (2019) What it’s really like to be a woman in Canadian politics. Retrieved from https://www.chatelaine.com/living/politics/woman-in-canadian-politics-2019/
[viii] Chatelaine (2019) A whopping 86% of female MPs have experienced sexism in politics. Retrieved from https://www.chatelaine.com/living/politics/female-mp-sexism-canada/
[ix] Bajak, A et al (2020) Women on the 2020 campaign trail are being treated more negatively by the media. StoryBench. Retrieved from http://www.storybench.org/women-on-the-2020-campaign-trail-are-being-treated-more-negatively-by-the-media/
[x] Puniewska, M (2018). Inside the strict unspoken dress code for women political candidates. Racked. Retrieved from https://www.racked.com/2018/6/4/17417386/political-candidates-women-female-dress-code
[xi] Lay, J. Celeste, Holman, Mirya R., Bos, Angela L., Greenlee, Jill S., Oxley, Zoe M., and Buffett, Allison. 2019. “TIME for Kids to Learn Gender Stereotypes: Analysis of Gender and Political Leadership in a Common Social Studies Resource for Children.” Politics & Gender . Available at https://doi.org/10.1017/S1743923X19000540.
[xii] Women’s sports foundation (2010). Women play sports but on on TV. Retrieved from https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/articlesandreport/women-play-sports-not-tv/
[xiii] Mackenzie, M. (2019) Female Athletes Receive Only 4% of Sports Media Coverage—Adidas Wants to Change That. Glamour. Retrieved from https://www.glamour.com/story/female-athletes-receive-only-4-of-sports-media-coverage-adidas-wants-to-change-that
[xiv] Duncan, Margaret Carlisle and Michael A. Mesner. Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2004. Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, July 2005.
[xv] Krasovitski, M (2019). Sexism in sports media coverage. The Varsity. Retrieved from https://thevarsity.ca/2019/01/27/sexism-in-sports-media-coverage/
[xvi] Duncan, Margaret Carlisle and Michael A. Mesner. Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2004. Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, July 2005.
[xvii] Holste, Glenda Crank. Women Athletes Often Debased by Media Images. Women’s eNews, October 17 2000.
[xviii] Lindzon, J. (2016). The results are in: Sports reporting is as sexist as you’ve always expected. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3062793/the-results-are-in-sports-reporting-is-as-sexist-as-youve-always-suspected
[xix] Holste, Glenda Crank. Women Athletes Often Debased by Media Images. Women’s eNews, October 17 2000.
[xx] Women’s Sports Foundation (2016) Media – Images and words in women’s sport. Retrieved from https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/media-images-and-words-in-womens-sports-the-foundation-position.pdf