Women in the media: room for improvement

Article  by  Karin DANJAUME  •  Published 12.04.2013  •  Updated 12.04.2013
[NEWS] If you’re not a journalist, minister, athlete or actress, chances are you won’t be invited onto a TV show. A recent BBC initiative brings renewed attention to the issue of women’s visibility in the media.

In March 2013, the BBC gained a great deal of media attention in announcing the creation of an “expert women database”, with its own dedicated YouTube channel. The 60 experts currently included in the database all attended the BBC Academy, where they received media training to provide on-air expertise down the line. The goal of this initiative is to increase the presence of women experts in the media beyond the usual fields of maternity, teaching, fashion, culture, etc. The women featured in the BBC database include economists, crowdfunding specialists, engineers, historians, political analysts and more.
The 60 experts of the BBC Expert Women Database
This discussion is hardly recent; it is recurring in the public sphere in Great Britain and beyond, a banner issue for feminist organizations and women’s networks of influence. A number of networks, such as Sound Women or HerSay, have already established their own databases. The issue is twofold, in reality: it highlights the low rate of female representation[+] NoteHere, the focus is mainly on the print media, radio and television.X [1] in terms of media professionals and guest experts on current events for these same media sources.

Not enough visibility for women in the media? The figures may be misleading in looking at the two-thirds of French evening news programs that are presented by women, according to a March 2013 InaStat study. The gap has also narrowed between male and female journalists in France, where 45.7% of press card holders are now women. But it widens in looking at news guests: only 19% of guests are women, including many politicians[+] NoteIn 2012 with the presidential elections, female candidates were given a great deal of air time.X [2].

 Presence of women in French news programs from 2008 to 2012
Source: InaStat 2013
Beyond female politicians, actresses and athletes are particularly prominent; but for topics such as terrorism, nuclear power, the financial crisis, Syria and Mali, where are the women? All media combined, 81% of guest experts are men.
In the United States, the same phenomenon holds true. The study by the Women’s Media Center, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013, indicates that in 2012 (also a presidential election year), men were far more present than women in the written press (69.4% of citations were from men), on television (77%) and public radio (69.4%).

Women's appearences in the U.S. media in 2012

The figures are even more astonishing when it comes to sources: 66–84% are male (with CNN at the high end), all media combined.
The report is pushed to the extreme with the Women’s Media Center’s observation – not devoid of humor (“maybe notable women don’t die”) – that in the American written press, on average only 20% of obituaries of notable figures concern women (The Chicago Tribune makes strides in reaching 28%).
The OpEd Project, meanwhile, reveals that out of 7,000 press articles evaluated (from The New York Times, The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others), only 38% of op-eds[+] Notefrom outside contributors rather than news staffX [3] were written by women.
There are an abundance of similar figures, and the pull of the issue of women’s representation in the media lies in the fact that it is symptomatic of the position of women in society as a whole (in industrialized countries, specifically). The media should be a reflection of society, and today in France, Great Britain and the United States, they are above all a reflection of its unequal nature. The 2011 report of the Commission sur l’Image des Femmes dans les Médias (commission on women’s media image) also highlights the persistence of stereotypes on physical appearance and the role traditionally assigned to women: “(…) the image of women in the media must be transformed given that, despite progress made, they continue to suffer from a lack of social validation”[+] Notepage 13 of the first section of the report, “Rôle et responsabilité des medias” X [4]. Michèle Reiser, ex-member of this French Commission and rapporteur of the aforementioned report furthermore concluded that in 2011, “the legitimacy of knowledge is masculine”.
Whatever the case, in 2013, there is a substantial gap between the real lives of women (who work, hold high-responsibility positions, many while raising children) and their representation in the media. The issue of quotas is making a comeback these days, on which positions diverge, while unanimously stating that women’s voices are not to be heard simply because they are women.
The issue of women’s representation in the media also questions the practices of professionals. Journalists are often working urgently and stick to habit in terms of their contacts. Some observers go so far as to point out a certain form of laziness. Furthermore, television and radio outlets often search for the “sure bet” to bring in the ratings. To overcome these reflexes, tools for raising women’s visibility are made available to media in France as well. The organization Vox Femina features a list of experts, while Le Guide des Expertes lists some 300 women experts on a number of specific topics. Nevertheless, some wonder whether databases of experts and media training sessions are enough.
The response may come from new media outlets such as Les Nouvelles News, a pure player that “covers the news with respect for equality”. It may also come from large traditional media outlets such as the BBC, which have the power to transform the situation. In this respect, the appointment of Nathalie Nougayrède as the first female director of French daily Le Monde in March 2013 is an important symbol.
Translated from French by Sara Heft
Photo Credits:
- Main image: Media training Mark Basset / BBC
- InaStat n°29 graph / Institut national de l'audiovisuel
- Women Expert Database group shot Anna Gordon / BBC
- Graph from The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013 by the Women's Media Center
  • 1. Here, the focus is mainly on the print media, radio and television.
  • 2. In 2012 with the presidential elections, female candidates were given a great deal of air time.
  • 3. from outside contributors rather than news staff
  • 4. page 13 of the first section of the report, “Rôle et responsabilité des medias”
Would you like to add or correct something? Contact the editorial staff