Men still vastly outnumber women in senior media roles – and in news coverage

Female journalists remain frequently excluded from key areas such as politics

Ian Burrell
Media Correspndent
Monday 23 November 2015 12:46
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Left to right: Sandi Toksvig, Sophie Walker and Catherine Mayer of the Women’s Equality Party
Left to right: Sandi Toksvig, Sophie Walker and Catherine Mayer of the Women’s Equality Party

The news is still, by and large, made by men for men. Research from the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), based on 114 countries and released today, shows that only 24 per cent of persons seen, heard or read about in the media are women. In online news reports the figure is almost the same, at 26 per cent. The findings amount to a “severe disparity between representation of women and men in news media”, the report concludes.

The BBC is tonight hosting an event at Broadcasting House called “Is News Failing Women?” after realising that 66 per cent of its global audience of 283 million is male.

“We are missing out on reaching out to women audiences across the world,” says Liliane Landor, the BBC controller for languages. News chiefs from other organisations, including Al Jazeera and Channel 4 News, will also be in attendance. Despite all efforts, the visibility of women in global news media has barely changed in the past decade.

Does this worrying imbalance apply to the UK? It is tempting to look at the high-profile battle between the BBC’s Huw Edwards and ITV’s Tom Bradby on the flagship bulletins and see an industry where alpha males strut their stuff.

At an event last week at City University in London, senior women news executives, including Eleanor Mills, editorial director of The Sunday Times and Alison Phillips, editor of the Sunday Mirror, discussed barriers to female success in a debate called “Smashing the Glass Ceiling”.

Ms Mills, chair of Women in Journalism, told me recently that female journalists were still largely excluded from key areas such as politics and that news was often seen through a “stale, pale and male” lens.

In global news media, 37 per cent of bylines are female, the same as in 2005, the GMMP report found. But new research suggests that the gender imbalance in the UK national press is receding.

An analysis of more than 3,000 journalists on national dailies found that women occupy 40 per cent of senior roles. The Daily Telegraph emerged as the most female-friendly paper, with women taking 46 per cent of staff jobs. The Sun had most room for improvement with 72 per cent of staff positions – and 75 per cent of senior roles – held by men. The young women who make up the greater share of journalism graduates can look for inspiration to the likes of Katharine Viner, who this year became The Guardian’s first female editor-in-chief, and Lisa Markwell, editor of The Independent on Sunday. To reflect International Women’s Day in March, Ms Markwell focused on female story themes, bylines and expert quotes.

How should this gradual feminisation of the newsroom impact on the news it produces? Kate McAndrew, senior counsel at the communications agency Cicero Group, which did the research, said it was dangerous to think that women were interested only in certain issues.

“A really good news story is a really good news story – for a man or a woman.”

Ms McAndrew, a former Sky and BBC journalist, says newsrooms can still feel like a noisy “locker room” and young women need to be listened to if their ideas are not to be lost.

Suzanne Franks, a journalism professor at City University, says there might be more sinister explanations for the improved gender balance in newsrooms: journalism is declining in status and, in general, women earn less.

“My fear would be that some men would prefer to go into lucrative corporate PR jobs,” she says.

There has long been a pressure within newsrooms to increase the profile of women in the news output, especially in pictures. Professor Franks says women often appear on front pages but usually as victims or celebrities. The Duchess of Cambridge is an obvious favourite.

“There’s a push to feature women, but it’s not as authority figures or experts,” she says.

Four male experts appear on British news bulletins for every woman, according to research conducted by Professor Lis Howell at City University. In areas such as court witnesses and academia, the ratio of experts is no more than 2.5 to one.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, media training days have been held to give female experts from multiple fields the confidence to go on air. As with the introduction of Mishal Husain alongside Sarah Montague into the Today presenting line-up, the new roster of experts is slowly improving the tone and breadth of the programme.

The BBC’s record in gender equality is generally good. Nearly 46 per cent of news and current affairs staff are female. There are senior figures, from Fran Unsworth, head of the World Service, to presenters such as Sophie Raworth. Director-General Tony Hall wants more women working on local news.

But Professor Howell found that, even now, not many women in broadcast news are assigned to actually cover stories – male reporters outnumber females by three to one. “I find that really odd because that’s something broadcasters are in control of,” she says.

The huge discrepancy can’t be explained by the old chestnut of childcare. And, as Professor Howell notes, nursing is both dangerous and subject to shift work but no one argues that it is a difficult career for a woman.

This seems a subject for the new Women’s Equality Party to address, given that female journalists Catherine Mayer and Sophie Walker are prominent in the organisation.

Around the world it seems likely that there are issues cutting women off from the news. In some countries it might be harder for women to access mobile phones (an important platform for news almost everywhere, but especially in Africa) and in certain societies there is probably patriarchal domination of the TV remote, the radio tuner or the computer. In Britain, such problems are thankfully minimal. Women actually make up a majority of the audience for all the big TV news bulletins – slightly above their 51 per cent representation in the population. The interest is clearly there.

The type of news we watch is subtly changing. Childcare has become a news story (and an issue for male parents, too). Female genital mutilation is widely covered, thanks to pioneering reporting of the subject by the late Sue Lloyd-Roberts. Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, recently used her position to say that employers should treat menopause as seriously as childbirth. And commercial news organisations understand that advertisers want to reach women, who are often the key financial decision-makers in the home.

It would be wrong to be complacent. One academic speculates that the tide of violence in the news since the emergence of Isis is off-putting to some women. Online sites such as Instagram and Mumsnet are seen as “safe places” for women to discuss the news. But Twitter, an important platform within the news media, has problems in this regard.

Social media is the one area where women’s engagement with news is growing internationally, but misogynistic trolling makes it a place where some women still fear to speak their minds.

Twitter: @iburrell

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