Turning the table on gender disparity

derFrom the dawn of civilisation till date, the woman of the patriarchal society continues to be oppressed and ill-treated. She is dependent, weak, exploited and faces gender discrimination in every sphere of life. What is significant, however, is that the media, to a large extent, encourages and perpetuates this age long malaise of patriarchal standards by the underrepresentation of the female folks despite the considerable number of women who work, and the many who are experts in their different fields. Regrettably, the media continues to allow misogyny and weaken feminism and its agitations for redress in several subtle ways. News media and message programming everywhere all too often feature contents of men talking to men about men. According to the Global Media Monitoring Project 2015, women are the focus of only 10 per cent of news stories, comprise just 20 per cent of experts or spokes people interviewed, and a mere 4 per cent of news stories are deemed to challenge gender stereotypes. The practice of telling stories and producing debates which reflect a male dominated sphere is both deeply ingrained and incredibly subtle. From politics to economy, technology, commerce and industry to crime, very few women’s voices are heard in the mainstream media. Even when the news is about women, the story only gains real prominence if there is a male authority figure or newsmaker on the scene.

This is the same scenario in politics where the press representations of women have always tried to make them seem unimportant and not capable in order to negatively influence the way female candidates are evaluated by the public. At worst, this sends a strong message to women: this is not for you; and to the general public: do not take female interest in politics seriously. So, it is not surprising that women are far less likely to even watch political news or even participate in politics than men. The small proportion of women who have accessed the highest positions in politics are still diminished and trivialised by the media as they are almost inevitably presented only in relation to their physique and sartorial representation instead of their capabilities. Meanwhile, what we see on-screen matters and has implications for what happens off-screen and there is no shortage of evidence demonstrating that who we see in power also influences how we see ourselves. When politics is portrayed in the media as a man’s game, it is no coincidence that progress towards women’s equal participation in politics is excruciatingly slow, as Josephine Casserly succinctly argues. Moreover, the old notion that women’s pretty faces are more marketable than their voices still prevails as content analysis of mainstream media in Nigeria in particular reveals.

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There is also the added reality of lack of women in the management and running of media institutions. It is said, for instance, that only about 5 per cent of television writers, executives and producers are women. (Lichter, Lichter, Sr Rothman, 1986). In the same vein, while two thirds of journalism graduates are women, they make up less than 2% of those in corporate management of newspapers and only about 5 per cent of newspaper publishers. Opinions are apparently also a male thing much as newspaper editorial boards are on average made up of seven men and two women. Female film directors are even more scarce, as are executives in charge of radio and television stations. Yet, it must be recognised that women deserve a place in the newsroom and in senior positions in media houses just as much as men not just due to their equal capability, but also because no matter how much content a media outlet publishes for and about women or how committed management is to creating gender equality, if there isn’t a physical representation of women in the newsroom, having a balance is impossible.

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Media organisations must, therefore, come to the realisation that giving women good and real representation in management is also one way of broadening their own appeal in the society through the capturing of the attention of the womenfolk. It is regrettable, for example, that there appears to be a consensus, especially among the majority of male journalists, about having difficulty in accepting the editorship of women. And this is only because of patriarchal bias and socialisation with this resulting in very few female leaders in the newsrooms. In reality, there are many women with great potentials and capabilities who only have to be given the chance to prove themselves creditably. The time has, therefore, come for women to be deliberately permitted and encouraged to attain to the highest management levels in media organizations as part of the crusade to overcome and overturn gender disparity in the media.

In the words of Marshal McLuhan, “The medium is the message.” And of the many influences on how we view men and women, the media is the most pervasive and definitely one of the most powerful. Woven throughout our daily lives, the media insinuate their messages into our consciousness at every turn. It is therefore indispensable that both the print and electronic media as well as social media be reoriented to present balanced and more positive pictures of women’s diverse lives and contributions to society in a changing world. Considering the fact that the media have such huge influences on people as their most significant single source of information today, the media would be expected to act with more responsibility pertaining to gender parity in their choices of subjects and guests as well as in their writers and staff. People are more and more conscious that the microphone has to be shared and the spotlight shone on the shadows, such that the society would not be pleased with continuing media portrayals of women in derogatory terms. There is need, going forward, for more gender sensitivity in media practice and management and the society should hold them accountable in this regard.

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The United Nations (UN) has rightly argued that achieving gender equality in the media is paramount to creating a just and sustainable world and to enhancing women’s roles in sustaining their families and communities. Thus, if the media are to set great store by such a just world and are serious about the positive representation of women, then they need to go beyond and upturn the present gender disparity in the media and give women more space and visibility, letting their voices be truly heard. It is not enough to continue to have a little page filler on some women and women issues and think that is it! Rather, we must deliberately and consciously create avenues in the media for women to present their stories, and ensure that they are there in the headlines and analyses and management.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Mass Communication, Kogi State University, Anyigba.

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