Equal Representation of Gender in the Media Regresses During Pandemic

On International Women’s Day it's important to consider women's many accomplishments. In 1866 when campaigners were handing over their petition for women’s suffrage to parliament, women had few legal rights, could not vote in national elections and had no access to higher education.

150 years later and our society transformed, unrecognisable from the days of the suffragettes. Legislative, cultural and societal changes driven by brave female pioneers and campaigners have made the UK a significantly more equal place for women. However, women are still not equally represented in many areas of daily life.

Last year we worked with Zurich Insurance on a campaign that looked into equality in the workplace. They have released new research suggesting that employers who embraced the flexible working revolution post the COVID-19 pandemic could boost applications from women for top jobs by as much as 20%. The topic clearly struck a chord with broadcasters as we secured coverage on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Sky News’ Ian King Live, Bloomberg Radio, Bloomberg TV and Business Briefing on BBC World TV and BBC One, amongst many others. Proving that gender equality continues to be a prominent feature of the news agenda.

Gender Balance in the Pandemic

However, despite gender equality being ever-prevalent over recent decades – broadcasters across the globe are still finding it difficult to provide equal gender representation in their news reports, despite initiatives like the BBC’s 50:50 Challenge being launched to address the issue. In fact, new research shows the global pandemic has only exacerbated the problem when it comes to the long-standing issue of gender balance in the news. The study, by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, found that female voices and expertise have been marginalised in the reporting of the coronavirus coverage. This has been partially attributed this to the fact the crisis is being reported in terms which are evocative of war and conflict, which has reinforced stereotypes that men perform better in crises.

The report looked at 15 leading news sources across the UK, Australia and the US which were analysed to look at the gender balance of prominent experts mentioned in coverage of two areas with relevance to the Covid-19 crisis – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and economics. It found just 5% of well-known STEM experts quoted were women and made up only 15% of well-known economists named. In stark contrast to the volumes of men that were asked to provide commentary on the evolving global pandemic.

The research found that overall, only a third of those quoted in media about the pandemic were female Interestingly, this significantly varied when looking at the subjects women were asked to provide comment on. Just over a third (37%) of commentary in health-related coverage were attributable to women, falling to 27% in business, and 24% in science and politics pieces. When looking at coverage of specific topics linked to the coronavirus crisis, there was a strong divide in female voice between ‘traditionally’ feminine and masculine issues.

Women provided commentary for over half of the coverage related to childcare and domestic violence, and more than a third in articles related to education. In two key topics within the coronavirus coverage, epidemiology and public health, women only made up a quarter of those that provided commentary.

If the news were truly a mirror of the world, we would expect to see at least an equal gender share of voices in content. But why in one of the biggest news events of our generation are women’s voices being side-lined in favour of their male counterparts?

Equal Representation = Trust

There are a variety of reasons why female experts aren’t sourced in news stories as often as men. Both journalists and women experts themselves face challenges. For journalists, tight deadlines, unconscious bias, industries with a lack of women in leadership roles to serve as sources as well as cultural challenges often affect their ability to identify women experts. For women, corporate policies and hierarchies that determine who speaks to the media, a lack of media training and generally being less visible significantly limit their opportunities to speak with the media.

But why is it important for journalists to ensure an equal gender share when it comes to their spokespeople and sources?

First and foremost, it is good journalism. When an entire group of people are underrepresented in the daily narratives that help us understand the world around us, we have an incomplete or inaccurate depiction of reality. This means that the media – rather than being a direct and true representation of society – tell stories through a distorted lens. Similarly, when journalists fail to find female experts and leaders to comment on their reports, they risk leaving out viewpoints that are relevant to a huge portion of the population. Not only this, but they’ll also miss out on new and interesting stories that otherwise may not surface with a news agenda dominated by men.

Audience trust has become a critical concern for news outlets with media now considered the least trusted institution globally, as discovered in Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer report, which has only worsened during the COVID-19 crisis. A lack of diversity and representation in media, contributes considerably to this. Excluding or misrepresenting marginalised and minority groups often contributes to people not receiving information relevant to their experience and circumstances, causing disengagement and distrust.

Having an equal gender share in news is not only beneficial to broadcasters’ box-ticking exercises, but also can be hugely beneficial for businesses. Mounting research suggests the could be a direct correlation between gender equality and diversity and a company’s financial success.

Not only this, but female expert and authoritative voices being accurately reflected lines the way for gender stereotypes to be left firmly in the past, which can only benefit society as a whole. Children today grow up in a world where they learn from an early age that they can participate equally in most areas of life. Ensuring there is gender balance in the newsroom coverage they will grow up watching will ultimately contribute to existing gender bias in society to be diminished.

Taking Ownership

However, it’s not the sole responsibility of journalists and newsrooms to increase the voice of women in the news; the business world must also do its part. But what must companies consider when looking at who represents their business to the media?

There are more men leading UK FTSE 100 listed companies than women and ethnic minorities combined. Therefore, often by only offering CEOs, Vice Presidents and Managing Directors up for comment, female voices are often instantly side-lined. Thinking outside the box, forgetting the hierarchical system and finding other peers and experts within an organisation can often make for a much more engaging and successful interview.

It is important businesses identify strong media candidates ahead of time. Instead of scrabbling to find someone female last minute when a request comes through – take some time to look objectively at the organisation you work for or are working with and identify suitably qualified candidates so that they can be properly prepared, and media trained to make for all all-round better class of interview that the media will want to replicate time and time again.

The Power Is In Our Hands

As people working in PR, we have an undeniable power to be able to influence and change the news agenda to make gender equality work and for gender bias to become eradicated to the history pages.

Even though there are millions of qualified women, as discussed in this piece – they’re often overlooked as sources of news. The inequality of women at the forefront of the news agenda is not only a media issue. This disparity also contributes to the lacking progress toward other equality goals such as equal pay and diverse C-suites.

As gatekeepers between the media and spokespeople, PR has leverage. It has the power to make significant changes to what sometimes is referred to as the ‘Say Gap’. As an industry which is largely dominated by women, PR needs to lead by example. There are countless opportunities for female thought leaders within PR. Yet, whilst women often dominate industry jobs within the comms sector, PR’s media conversation does not always accurately represent society – and this needs to change.

So today on International Women’s Day, take a minute to look at the state of communications within your organisation or the clients you work with. Could you be doing more to help the cause for gender equality within the media? Could you put more effort into media training more female spokespeople to redress the balance? Let’s give women the power back to be able to deal with crisis, provide commentary and be ultimately more visible within the media – just as successfully as men have done throughout history.