Sexism & Media

The research took place over four weeks in 2011 and reviewed (only) the front pages of both tabloids and the quality press.

Perhaps the most interesting findings of this report relate to the counter-intuitive comparisons drawn between different newspapers. The WiJ found that the most male-dominated was the (‘quality’) Independent with 91% of its front page articles written by men; whereas 50% of the leading articles in the (popular) Express were by female journalists. One could say that this reflects the fact that prestigious newspapers hire ‘prestigious’ journalists and reporters amongst whom for a variety of reasons there are more men? However, amongst the (rest of) the so-called quality press rather unexpectedly the Financial Times has the largest proportion of female writers appearing on the front page, namely a modest 34%. Does this mean that thrusting young female journalists realize that working on economic issues is the way to the top; that the FT has an equal opportunities policy which is starting to work; or (very unlikely) that the FT is losing prestige and therefore can only attract women. The liberal and generally forward-looking Guardian ‘had a 78% male skew’ which may be both surprising and disappointing to its readers. WiJ needs to dig deeper and wider to interpret these numbers.

Staying on the front page, the study found more statistical equality in the photographs: Kate Middleton and her sister, and Prince William and Nicholas Sarkozy dominated with no single female politician or leader appearing on the front page during the research month. It’s perhaps not surprising that Sarkozy and the Middleton/Windsors dominated as the very brief research period coincided with the time when Sarkozy was running for office and the other three were running for (or after) marriage… so perhaps it’s a stretch for the Guardian to say that the front pages were ‘dominated by sexist stereotypes’ though it’s a good headline. The front page is all about extreme events which sell papers usually involving weather, crime,celebrities and furry animals …alone or in combination.

The study found that ‘Where powerful women were featured, the images were often unflattering’. Are women leaders supposed to be portrayed only in a flattering light? To introduce our own subjectivity, the UK press… especially the so-called quality press… seems to operate an equal opportunities policy in terms of ridicule dished out to politicians. Prime Minister, David Cameron’s head is depicted as a condom by Guardian cartoonist, Steve Bell; and Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, as a panda or half of Wallace and Grommit . The Home Secretary, Teresa May, is usually singled out for her taste in shoes. However, though Angela Merkel’s palette of her signature jacket draws some witticisms, even when portrayed in an ‘unflattering’, light she always looks like the winner.

Discussion of media treatment of male and female leaders is actually quite timely though was apparently less so at the time of the WiJ study. What is relatively new news is the judgment being made by the media on leaders both male and female…as to their gender-sensitivity. Mitt Romney has been widely excoriated for his ’binders full of women’ remark…but at least he admitted a gaping hole in the Republican base and he has now apparently has a lead with women voters though maybe not all of them.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her reputation have been going through (dare we say it) a ‘rollercoaster’ of ‘swings and roundabouts’. Her comment on misogyny was hailed both as political suicide; and as a mighty blow for feminism. Her feminist credentials have naturally subsequently been called into question by a distinguished male journalist (John Pilger), as has the decision by the dictionary to revise the definition of ‘misogyny’ to match the way in which Gillard supposedly used it. There’s power for you!

Whatever her background and convictions Julia Gillard has certainly put the issue of sexism and misogyny in Australian life…… as well as more globally……squarely on the front page. For a female leader to speak out loudly on sexism and gender discrimination is relatively unusual and that also deserves further exploration. Hillary Clinton’s ‘Margaret Thatcher’ position is more common. Should we expect all female leaders to be outspoken feminists, whatever their political base, or is being a woman at the top table enough of an inspiration?

As a side benefit to the Gillard story we have been allowed an insight into the Australian equivalent of UK Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons! Certainly not for the faint-hearted.

It is pointless to criticize WiJ for not doing what they were not attempting to do. We know now where women journalists are largely not to be found (i.e. the front page) and it would be nice to know where they are (editorial, comment and debate, colour supplement?); in what numbers and with what length of tenure and seniority (yes, both age and level in the paper hierarchy); with what specialities (politics, economics, social issues, media, fashion, food – women’s and gender issues?) It cannot be assumed that gender issues are always followed by women journalists, nor that all women journalists follow gender issues .A study by the US- 4th estate… found that even ‘women’s issues’ (sic) specifically ‘abortion & birth control’ (sic) are more likely to be addressed by men, but this study appears to have been specifically in the context of the current male contestant only elections!

Ideally of course gender is a topic of universal interest and not a male or female journalist speciality?

It would also be important to find out which newspapers address in a systematic, sustained and critical way issues of gender equality – both the obvious (Julia Gillard, EU 40% Female Quota on Company Boards, Jimmy Savile, gay marriage) and the slightly less ‘sexy’ (gender equality in car insurance and pension premiums, maybe women bishops in the Anglican church?).

‘Sustained and systematic’ means more than one article and an analytical discussion of the pros and cons of the case… so probably not an exclusively ‘front page’ item. Ideally gender equality issues can be mainstreamed across several sections…. The current discussion on EU gender quotas on company boards for example has been spotted on the front page as well as in Business & Finance and Social pages.

Can we expect the media to affect as well as reflect society? Are the newspapers and other media an accurate or a distorting mirror of current society, and could they do more to highlight and guide changing positive trends. Newspapers in the UK (and not only quality newspapers) are part of the establishment and that is probably reflected in their staffing makeup (gender, age, class, ethnicity). It is possible that this is changing but we need more than a four-week snapshot in order to trace any trends.

Of course in this digital age studying the front page of newspapers may not provide a very complete picture of sexism in the media. We have some major digital players….and some major female players in that field (Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington). The situation in traditional mainstream media, however, appears largely to support the WiJ snapshot. We need only look at the BBC, under fire for ageism and sexism and now accused of not dealing with sufficient transparency on the Jimmy Savile paedophilia allegations. For many years the testimony of the few women who dared speak out against the ‘star’ appears to have been discounted in the face of his iconic stature. This is certainly a story which will stay on the front page.

However, even if we stick to the ‘old-fashioned media’ gendercentric persists in believing that a longer and broader study would reflect some positive trends in terms both of representation and topics covered; in traditionally male areas such as finance and sport for example there appear to be more women reporters (though not more women’s sport covered);there may be more women on serious panel discussions, though still few on the satirical Have I Got News for You…..and there seems to us to be more serious coverage of gender issues in general (are we dreaming?). However it still may take a Julia Gillard, or a Jimmy Savile story to make gender truly front page news?
Don’t say: even feminists like to see where Kate buys her shoes
Do say: mainstream media are (still) more of a mirror than a motor.