It’s time to tackle the gender gap in the news media

As a journalist and advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment, I have long been troubled by how the media stifles women’s voices and women’s issues.

So I was pleasantly surprised when a male editor of this newspaper not only engaged me about a recent television report I hosted on this topic, but also challenged me to publish also a written opinion.

“Story za wamama,” as my male colleagues in the industry call them, is often aired after the fact and inserted at the end of newscasts when viewers have fallen asleep or changed channels. Newspapers, on the other hand, contain something so small that you might miss it even if you own a vintage magnifying glass.

According to the Harvard Business Review, women are far less likely than men to be seen in the media. As journalists telling stories, they drop to 37%. As experts, they represent only 19% and, as subjects of stories, they appear in only a quarter of the television, radio and printed news.

A recent report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is no less shocking: patriarchal norms, according to the study, are one of the main reasons there are barriers for women in the media. For every news headline written about a woman, there are six written about men. The women featured in the news have very few protagonists or experts/sources.

This imbalanced gender image of society, to quote the Harvard Business Review, can reinforce and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, especially since it is an open secret that the news business is a business of men and that most decisions are made by male editors.

So how can we, as news media, fairly represent the world when half of it, namely women, are not represented in our records? Don’t women make the news? Are their stories so insignificant that newsrooms consider them not worthwhile? It is said that in politics, women are more likely to think about the needs of children and families. Aren’t these points of view worthy of interest?

Most editors/newsroom decision makers do not prioritize women’s stories and often treat them as “other stories” in newsroom lingo. Prime time news will never place such stories at the top of their orders and seldom will women’s stories get front page coverage in our publications, except perhaps if the story is about a scandal.

Of course, this scandal is likely to involve a male protagonist with a woman appearing somewhere like it happened recently when a senator died, or is a crime of passion, perhaps, where a woman got her eye gouged from another woman!

Seems like female journalists aren’t doing enough to advance the women’s agenda on the newsroom floor. But the previously mentioned patriarchal norms allow for the continued dominance of male perspectives in the news and limit the presence of women in news stories as protagonists and news experts. Moreover, the number of women at the decision-making level in our newsrooms is dismal.

Which does not mean that women journalists are irreproachable. It is said that women dominate journalism schools but not newsrooms. Why is this so?

Female journalists need to normalize themselves by exposing themselves to hard-hitting stories on the agenda and not being comfortable with lifestyle and entertainment stories. They must delve into politics and governance, finance and business, health, labor and the environment – the so-called big stories that can not only bring women’s issues to the fore, but also lead to a career development in the newsroom.

Above all, they must engage in self-development, take on challenges, aspire to occupy the highest editorial positions, speak out and never tire of advancing women’s history and agenda. This is essential because society is heavily influenced by the way the media presents women and if the media trivializes women’s issues, society will follow.

For example, when the media devotes acres of space to ‘slayqueens’ and the lifestyle and busts and butts of female celebrities as opposed to the achievements and lives of strong women at all levels of society, our girls end up looking in the wrong place for patterns.

Furthermore, in 2015, female-headed households in Kenya stood at 36%. It is women who make decisions at household and community level. How do you stimulate economic development when their voices are muffled? The under-reporting of women and their issues is also bad for business, both for the media and for organizations. There is a general misconception that women are only interested in matters of health, entertainment and lifestyle. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There’s an army of unemployed women, entrepreneurs, farmers, professionals and so on who don’t care about the latest celebrity scandal. We need to hear their stories, their challenges and their accomplishments so that we can inspire the next generation of women leaders.

It behooves the men making decisions in the newsroom to sit up and reflect the message they are sending to their daughters when they allow sexist and misogynistic content to be published or stifle female voices altogether.

Indeed, do they prepare their sons to be good husbands and fathers of daughters? You can bet they don’t muffle the voices of their wives and daughters at home, so why is this becoming the norm in the workplace?

While gender parity in news can be enshrined in newsroom policy, it’s not necessarily the best way to go. What is needed is a change of heart and a deliberate effort on the part of everyone in the newsroom, especially those who make the decisions, to give more prominence to women’s voices – when hiring and assigning journalists, when seeking expert opinions and women covering the news. Information must stop being a man’s business and become everyone’s business.

We can progress. We can change this pervasive and archaic culture. We can shape and change the way women are viewed by eliminating sexism in our reporting and increasing the number of female sources and experts in our news and striving to achieve equal representation in the news. Now is the time to address the gender gap in the news media, otherwise this lack of female exposure will have a negative effect in the future, as we risk uplifting generations of women and girls underestimated.

– Najma Ismael is Group Editor of Standard PLC