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Closing the gap: A call to change the gender data narrative 

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Gender data has remained skewed for many years. To date, we fall behind in scaling up the numbers reported. A deep look at the Global Monitoring Media Report (GMMP) 2020 reveals that women are still poorly represented across many important economic and social sectors. However, some progress has been made in increasing women’s roles in news reporting. 

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To date, 48% of television news reported are done by women, an increase from 36% reported in 2000. The investigation also found that women were less represented in Covid-19 related internet news. Globally, men led the response to Covid-19 including policy making, and driving economic, social and political decisions. As reported by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), “100% of the members of the Daily Covid-19 meeting in England were men; 93% of the Coronavirus Response Team in the US were men; in Nigeria 92% of the Presidential Task Force for the Control of the Coronavirus Disease were men; while men constituted 86% of the Covid-19 task force in India, and 80% of the National Emergency Response Committee on Coronavirus in Kenya”. Why are we still falling behind in gender parity, and data reporting?

Despite being a global issue for many years, several factors have fostered gender disparity. There is the continued perception and undermining of women’s ability to contribute significantly to change, hinged on an engraved societal mindset. According to an investigation reported by National Public Radio (NPR), many male actors perceived the coronavirus outbreak as a time for action and not a time to include women in the process. This led to the neglect of women-related contexts in the global pandemic. Such contexts are seen in the lack of sex-disaggregated data on Covid-19 in 23 out 106 countries surveyed and deprioritization of issues that are critical to women in policy and decision making. 

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In addition to societal mindset, education constraints, for example, in the global south, have limited women for many years. Gender parity in education still falls behind. According to UNICEF, only 66% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, 45% in lower secondary, and 25% in upper secondary. As with some other factors, access to education has a domino effect on gender equality as a whole. Other factors limiting gender representation are unequal access to employment. Globally, only six countries give women equal rights to work as men. Overall, women only have access to three-quarters of men’s rights, lack political representation, and lack legal protection from economic and domestic violence. More than 1 billion women lack legal protection against domestic sexual violence, reports the World Bank

Amid these factors is the role of the media in gender equality. In today’s world, the media plays an important role in shaping public perceptions towards different aspects of life. Consequently, the manner in which different groups are portrayed in the media could reinforce stereotypes. As evidence has shown, who we see in positions of power impacts the way we see ourselves. When a group is constantly represented negatively, this adversely affects how others see them and how they see themselves. Conversely, positive representation builds self-confidence and dismantles stereotypes. 

According to research, children are influenced by the gendered stereotypes presented to them by the media. This exposure is correlated to continued traditional perceptions of gender roles, occupations, and personality traits, as well as attitudes towards expectations for future trajectories of life. Research suggests that this gendered perspective fosters a differentiated worldview, which reinforces stereotypes. Additional research indicates that girls and young women lose confidence and ambition if they do not see role models and women as leaders on screens.

The missing voices
According to the GMMP 2020 report, women are underrepresented in the news, both as news sources and news reporters. At the global level, women made up only 25% of what the people read about, see or hear in the news. In Africa, value was lower at 22%. In terms of portrayal across different thematic areas in the news, women were more likely to be news subjects in stories about gender issues than in political stories, dominating the news. 

Women are also underrepresented as the storytellers in the news. The report notes that men are more likely to be visible as journalists in the news, as compared to women. However, we observe an interesting dynamic as we move from print to broadcast news; women become more visible in broadcast news. In terms of allocation of journalists across different thematic areas, the gender gap is widest in political stories and smallest in stories related to gender issues. This presents a question on why female journalists are more likely to matter in gender issues, over political and economic issues, which dominate the news.

The Covid-19 pandemic emphasised the existing disparities that affected women. In the media, this exposed the glaring gap in the presence of female experts in the news. Despite making up half the world’s population, women’s voices continue to be drowned out and excluded in public discussions, forums and panels. Findings from the GMMP 2020 reveal that women were only considered to be experts in news 21% of the time. Such a finding is quite concerning, particularly in a year when the world was inevitably tuned in to the news.

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In 2020, stories on gender equality/inequality were barely covered in the news. Only an average of 7% of the stories reported referenced the issue, human rights policy, and legislation. Even lower performance than the 9% achieved in 2015. This may be connected to the de-prioritization of gender equality-related news as a result of the global pandemic. Meanwhile, only an average of 6% of the stories covered women as the central focus compared to 10% in 2015. This downward trend in women and gender equality representation in media downplays the efforts towards gender parity and can further delay the closure of the inequality gap.

On the other hand,stakeholders in media and data science also suggest that the non-disaggregation of data limits their story coverage. Athandiwe Saba, Head of News at The Mail and Guardian South Africa shared during a three day WanaData International Women’s Day event: “Gender based violence data is missing. This data is there but not delineated by male or female, or by other necessary parameters” says “Data on murder, assault, and the likes is not delineated. Also data on tracking transformation for higher education across the board is not given. The pandemic has shown the big gap across the social economic spectrum. If we cannot access that data we cannot tell the right stories; and policy makers are not focusing on this”.

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Amy Carmichael adds that “women representation is small but then there is little information about that data as well. Context is everything when it comes to reporting on gender. Our world is being driven by data and we do not know what the models are trained on”.

Many at the event questioned the absence of gender data and discussed the role of stakeholders in addressing the gap. “Why are we not seeing more stories on inequality or equality? So that they are part of the public discourse. There is a need for serious introspection for all stakeholders in the media” said Sarah Macharia, General Secretary, GAMAG.

Anthandiwe stressed that partnership is critical to address these issues “Leaders seeing the problem should reach out and start partnerships with smaller groups. There should be platforms and relationships to ensure they are heard. An example would be to build relationships with Statistics South Africa and the likes.”

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Sarah pointed out the role of good policy making “Within the media it has been agreed that we need to address the issue at a structural level. At a policy level. The right policy will change the outlook. We need women who bring up other women. Men have their boys club. What do we have as women? We have to look out for each other.

It is worth noting that innovative strides have been made by media outlets in closing their gender gaps. For example, when the Financial Times (FT) discovered that only 21% of people quoted in their reports were women, they developed a bot which analyses first names and pronouns of the news sources and determines their gender. If an imbalance is noted, it alerts the section editors, who are encouraged to include more female sources. Other initiatives, such as Quotethiswoman+ provide access to a database of women+ experts, that journalists and editors can refer to when looking for subject matter experts.

From glass ceilings to sticky floors, women are faced with visible and invisible barriers in many areas of life. Dismantling these barriers requires the collective effort of society as a whole. Everyone has a role to play; data scientists, media houses, policymakers, national and local authorities, civil society organizations, development partners, and private sector actors. More importantly, the media can play a key role in changing the stereotypical narratives that exist and contribute to closing the gender gaps. By regularly showing women in leadership roles, by including women in newscast panels, and by calling upon women to provide their expert opinions on the more ‘technical’ topics. These efforts will play a part in creating a more gender-balanced view of women in the media and get us a step closer to closing the gap.

Resources for newsrooms and media practitioners

WanaData: a pan-African network of female data scientists, journalists and technologists working to change the digital landscape by producing and promoting data-driven projects

Quotethiswoman+: a database of women+ thought-leaders, experts, activists and trailblazers

Amplifying women’s voices : A gender Balance Guide for Media, by WAN-IFRA

Gender Audit Handbook: by InterAction

Gender Sensitive Indicators for Media:  a framework of indicators to gauge gender sensitivity in media operations and content

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