Western societies like to boast about how far they have come in terms of women’s rights. But sexism in business and the media is still rampant, if a recent United States report is anything to go by.
‘The Status of Women in the US Media 2013’ research was released by the Women’s Media Centre – a non-profit organisation that works with the media to ensure that women’s stories are told and their voices heard. The report reveals some stark inequalities in one of the world’s oldest democracies. Even in the US, there’s a crisis of gender representation. Women are losing out, both in their representation in the media (women’s employment in powerful positions), as well as their representation by the media (how women are portrayed).
The report is a meta-study, or a compilation of many different studies. Its author, Diane Mitsu Klos, says it was conducted after last year’s report (the first ever released) detailed “persistent gender disparity in a range of media businesses and institutions that rank among the greatest influencers in American society”.
“In this 2013 report, we have expanded the categories that were studied and analysed, aiming to provoke meaningful discussion and increased accountability. And change. With females making up 51% of the US population, there are business, societal and cultural imperatives that demand gender equality and equal participation. Diversifying the media landscape is critical to the health of our democracy,” says Mitsu Klos.
Anyone who thinks that women’s increasing presence in the boardroom indicates that there is no more need for feminism should look at some of the statistics the report highlighted. Among them:
• At its current pace, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in politics, business, entrepreneurship and non-proﬁt organisations.
• In both legacy and online news sites, women mostly write about ’soft‘ topics, like food, family, furniture and fashion.
• Little girls as young as six are thinking of themselves as sex objects, due to the depiction of women in the media.
Beginning with newspapers, the report found that there is gender parity in news consumption across all media (although men are more likely than women to access news on tablets or smartphones). However, men’s voices are far more dominant. Not only do they have the vast majority of bylines, in both digital and print, they are also quoted more often than women. In print, 69.4% of the people quoted were men.
Another study found that men were more likely to be cited as experts and the gap increased with the age of those quoted. In the US election coverage of 2012, front page bylines at major national and regional newspapers – including The Miami Herald, Chicago Sun Times and The Washington Post – were two thirds male. Women were less likely to feature in the obituaries of notable people.
Male commentary even dominated discussions that were of particular interest to women, like abortion and birth control. And the disparities were huge: in discussions on abortion, 72.5% of commentators were men.
When it came to newsroom leadership, women were in 34.2% of supervisory positions, showing no progress since as far back as 1999, said one study.
New media has had a fairly democratising effect, with more women using digital forums than legacy outlets. However, as far as news reporting goes, “new media outlets have fallen into the same old rut”, says the report. Men have far more bylines and dominate RSS feeds.
When it comes to broadcast media, there are not many powerful women. Women owned 6.8% of “full-power” (a term that refers to the broadcast station’s spectrum) commercial TV stations. Women owned 7.8% of commercial AM and 5.8% of commercial FM radio stations. In TV news, the proportion of female news directors hit 30% for the first time ever and in both TV and radio, female news directors increased. However, seen in the longer term, the increase is quite flat. In major markets (more than one million listeners), there are 3.3 women at every station. Smaller radio stations may get by with one woman on the staff.
In talk radio, it is no exaggeration to say that men do almost all the talking. The report says, “Only one woman – [conservative political commentator] Laura Ingraham – cracked the Top 10 in Talkers magazine’s 2012 Heavy Hundred list of the nation’s most important radio talk show hosts. There are only 12 solo women on the list …”
Influential talk hosts can be responsible for propagating dangerous stereotypes. When law student Sandra Fluke testified in Congress in support of universities covering expensive contraception, Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” on air. Limbaugh was 2012’s most listened-to host in the US and his insult capped a decade of misogynistic comments (he once called Chelsea Clinton “the White House dog”. She was 13 at the time). Limbaugh gave Fluke a cursory apology after advertisers threatened to withdraw from his show. This was just one case cited in the report of outright misogyny on radio or TV.
The inequalities in representation get even worse in sports. There are a total of two women on Talkers’ ‘Heavy Hundred of Sports Talk’ and each co-hosts her show with men. This disparity does not change in coverage of women’s sports, where most commentators are male. Added to that, the coverage of women’s athletics was itself found to be problematic, with the majority of coverage given to sports, like beach volleyball, where women assume traditionally feminine clothing and attributes. In other words, where women athletes are presented as sex objects, they got more attention. Sports not considered female domains, like fencing, received hardly any coverage.
Moving to corporate media leadership, the report found that women were also poorly represented. One study found that women held 14.3% of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. And this has nothing to do with men being better leaders, one study seems to suggest: at companies where hiring on merit was strictly enforced, there was a more equitable proportion of women in leadership roles. Of Fortune magazine’s 50 most powerful women in business, 17 are from the media and/or technology sectors. These included talk show queen Oprah Winfrey (number 50 on the list), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (at number eight) and Ginni Rometty, president and CEO of IBM (number one).
In film, women made up 9% of the directors of 2012’s highest grossing films. In other key, behind-the-scenes roles, they made up 18% and were most likely to be producers. However, the more prestigious the production post, the less likely it was to be occupied by a woman. Employment was sexualised by genre: women were more likely to work on documentaries, dramas and animated films, and men more likely to work on action, horror and sci fi movies. Documentaries seem to be the most female-friendly genre, with 39% of documentary directors, compared to 18% of narrative features, being women. One study found that when women are directors, the number of women working on the movie increases.
Behind the scenes in TV, men directed 86% of all episodes surveyed (the sample comprised
3 100 episodes of prime time TV across broadcast and cable networks). In front of the camera, there are increasingly fewer female characters and their role seems to be largely decorative. They are much younger than their male counterparts and speak far less.
In film, women make up 33% of all characters. Female roles have increased, but female protagonists have decreased. They were twice as likely as men to be shown in explicit sex scenes. An author of one study is quoted in the report as saying: “Movie-going youth – the largest consumers of movies per capita – who are repeatedly exposed to portrayals of women as sexual and men as violent may internalise these portrayals.”
Another study shows that children do just that. The research into little girls around the age of six showed that they were more likely to see themselves as sex objects if they had been exposed to a lot of media without the critical guidance of a mother. Media theorists have said since the 1970s that what people see depicted in the media has become more real than their own experiences.
The report says it is in publishers’ interests to be more inclusive, as women’s voices have a “breadth of expertise, diversity, experiences and humanity”. It urges news outlets to think carefully about how they frame stories and what language they use, noting that words like “mistress” have particular, sexist connotations. It urges online publishers to monitor reader comments, which are hotbeds for trolls posting hateful vitriol.
The report concludes: “[For the press], independence, reporting and informing, accountability, ethical decision-making and transparency are a heavy load to carry. Especially as technology accelerates, business models crumble and newer, leaner ones that play by their own rules come along. Still, relevance is a key survival tool. And the females that make up 51% of the US population want their voices heard and to be portrayed accurately and without stereotype.”
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