March 5th, 2015
Media Representations of Women | HART International Women’s Day Blog Series
To commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day, we have focused our efforts here at HART on highlighting some of the notable achievements and deplorable setbacks within the countries we work at as well as the commendable aspirations of people fighting for women’s rights and gender equality globally. This blog entry will take a look at media representations of women. From politicians and celebrities to ordinary people, women have been vocal on many issues in the world today and it is with poignant admiration that we explore some of these accomplishments through the eyes of the global media.
The successful and fair representations of women
Our habitual expectations of a gender equal media in the west, despite its imperfections, have given us the perception that we can and should be judgemental towards gender biased media elsewhere in the world. Opinions on this will vary, however let us take a moment to appreciate the voice that western media has given to women globally and the gender equal acuity it has provided. The very need for us to be able to appreciate gender equality in any sphere of life is by itself a reinforcement of the fact that gender inequality has been and continues to be an issue for societies internationally. So let us start with celebrating together with the media (and to a great extent, social media) the representations of women in power in the 21st century:
“In a year of growing income extremes, when the gap between the richest, the poorest and the rest seems more fixed than ever, there is one welcome advance in an area of established inequality. As Rebecca Solnit argued on these pages on Tuesday, women’s voices are assuming unprecedented authority. A couple of weeks earlier a Time magazine writer claimed, even more boldly, that 2014 was the best year for women “since the dawn of time”.” – quote from the Guardian UK.
Western media has given women in power the platform to signify the importance of their plights to the world entire. From Malala Yousafzai’s harrowing experience and her audacious transformation into the youngest person to ever win the Noble Peace Prize to the world of Aung San Suu Kyi. While Aung San Suu Kyi is a figure the media has vastly associated with democratic aspirations, as she fights to represent the National League for Democracy in Burma’s political world despite the anguish she endured under her 15 year house arrest ordeal, the media has also uncovered some of the criticisms that have mottled her image. Personal opinions on whether Aung San Suu Kyi is representative of a truly democratic leadership have their own realm of existence but what is important here is that such coverage is illustrious of the fairness practiced by western media, where people are first and foremost treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings and only then scrutinized for their actions.
So, is there gender equality in the west?
The answer to this question is most probably, no. Despite the respectful stance on gender equality many popular media networks adhere to, representations of women’s political opinions and views are lower than men, statistically speaking. Below is an example of the gender gap that still exists in contemporary U.S.A.
Evidently from the infograph, women’s opinions were significantly underrepresented in the media during the 2012 presidential elections in the U.S.A. As is clearly visible, the statistics were gathered from some of the top media outlets in America which is a noteworthy example of how much more western media can do to represent women.
America isn’t the only western state where gender inequality is still an issue. In Britain, as recently as 2013, a report found a “shocking absence of women from UK public life”. While this is not a direct statistic of media representations of women (notwithstanding this type of reporting is a form of women representation in itself), it is indicative of it as the graph below summarizes the various roles women play in British society, which indirectly translates into representation.
If we were to have a closer look at the statistical representation of women in mainstream media in the UK, as indicated by the BFI’s statistical yearbook of 2012, women made up 34% of the workforce in the film production industry. In 2013, women made up 14.2% of screenwriters in UK films and 14.1% of directors. The gender gap is also vividly represented by the number of women working as journalists and reporters within the UK press. Average byline fraction for females by publication totalled 22.6% among 9 of the top media outlets in the country.
From the daily news to comedy shows and films, mainstream media has an impact on society by bringing forth influential content. It can also help raise awareness or put forth agendas of interest for the majority. Mainstream media can be a tool for the voiceless by raising awareness of issues which would otherwise get very little coverage. This is evidently true as the influence of mainstream media can even have an impact on law making these days. A good example of this is the recent amendment of the Modern Slavery Bill in the House of Lords; a cause which HART has extensively advocated for in the past. In the words of Lord Young of Norwood Green:
“My Lords, I support the amendment. I think that anybody who heard the recent Radio 4 programme and listened to the first-person testimony of people who are in this situation could not fail to be moved by it. A question was raised during the programme where the Government were invited to answer why they had not signed convention 189 on decent work for domestic workers. Not every country has signed it—I would not attempt to mislead the House on that—but it is interesting that countries such as Finland, Ireland and Germany have done so. I fail to understand why we should not be in that progressive group.”
What’s happening in other parts of the world?
Sadly, the case is quite similar in other parts of the world too. Some media platforms have given women the space for representation but the gender gap continues to exist. Mere representation of women isn’t the only concern however; also extremely concerning is the particular ways in which women are represented. For example, Uganda’s government, (which as recently as 2014, signed a controversial anti-gay bill) has done little to curve the existence of tabloids which are gender biased. Red Pepper, which claims to be the ‘newspaper of the year’ (famously covered by western media when they published, or as they like to say “exposed”, “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos”), continues to publish gender biased articles even in its online edition. Some of Re Pepper’s recent ‘findings’ conclude that ‘men who sleep with more than 20 women have lower chances of getting prostate cancer… The report however showed that the case is not the same for gay men’. The picture isn’t entirely grim for Uganda though. Mainstream media has always had the upper hand and has put forth the gender equality agenda in many a case. Uganda’s New Vision daily newspaper has been vocal in highlighting the inequitable and discriminatory attitudes undermining women’s rights to land and security and showcasing the initiatives in place that deal with this issue. The importance of representation in mainstream media is visible in many aspects of society anywhere today.
Nigeria is another example of a nation that has much to do towards achieving gender equality. The problem lies with the disproportionate representation of the sexes within mainstream media. As Anna Cox investigated in her blog covering political participation of women in the countries where HART works, women made up only 6.7% of government seats in parliament during the last elections. While Nigeria does have a quota for women in political representation, it is evident women barely receive any such representation. Nevertheless, in a country where female participation in public life has been traditionally restricted, organisations have been established to deal with this issue, and their voices are being heard. The UNDP has endorsed the efforts of the Nigeria Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ) who are working towards increasing women’s access and leadership in the media. They have garnered much respect locally for their efforts to encourage women to take up journalism or for their support of journalists. Additionally to civil society groups, Nigeria’s First Lady, Patience Jonathan runs her own development initiative called Women for Change, which focuses on enabling women to have an influence in the political, economic and social realms in Nigeria.
What is there to do about media representations of women?
Under the global #MakeItHappen campaign, we have dedicated our efforts here at HART to find and choose campaigns that we believe are representative of the equality among genders we aspire to. HeforShe is one such campaign. It is a solidarity movement for gender equality that was launched by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former deputy president of South Africa and head of UN Women. It recognizes the need to engage men and encourage them to take action against the inequalities of the genders, for gender equality can only be achieved when both sexes are involved in the struggle. You can support them or donate to the cause straight form their website. And if you’re not convinced yet, then watch the clip below and see the influence women in power can have on gender equality.
 Aside from mainstream media coverage, there have been a number of scholarly peer-reviewed articles that examine the life of Aung San Suu Kyi. Alison Koistinen has written an article ‘Peace Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi’ and Ronan Lee has voiced criticism towards her under ‘A Politician, Not an Icon: Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya’.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.
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