Written by Rosamund Shreeves,
‘The media shapes our world—but so do women, as powerful agents of change in all areas of society. It is time for media to reflect this reality.‘ (Council of Europe)
When we turn on our radio or TV, open our newspaper, or power up our smartphone to surf online, what – and who – do we see? Do the images, narratives and messages fully represent us and convey our voices? Behind the scenes, how are we represented among the people who shape this media content? And why does this matter?
The issue of gender equality may – or may not – have occurred to you in connection with these questions. According to a Eurobarometer poll published in November 2017, this may depend on your gender and which country you come from. Over half (54 %) of all respondents to the poll felt that there is a problem with the way women are presented in the media and advertising in their country. However, there were considerable differences, with the figure ranging from 71 % in France, 70 % in Sweden and 69 % in Spain to 22 % in Bulgaria and Latvia. Men were much less likely than women to say that there is a problem (48 % vs 59 %), and even less likely to say that it needs to be addressed (33 % vs 45 %).
In its event for this year’s International Women’s Day, the European Parliament will be looking more deeply into the question of gender equality in the EU’s media sector, focusing on how women are portrayed in media content, their current representation in the media workforce and how the media can contribute to the empowerment of women and girls. In view of the huge changes in how we now access, consume and contribute to the media, the discussions will also address the opportunities and risks connected with digitalisation – including the new possibilities for activism, and the threat presented by cyber-violence – and broader issues of digital inclusion, such as women’s access to the internet and take-up of education and careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and information and communication technologies (ICT). Other events at the Parliament include the launch of an EU platform for cities against sexist advertisement.
What does the EU’s media landscape look like through a gendered lens?
The data show that, despite some progress, women are still vastly under-represented in news coverage, which does not reflect their actual roles in public, social and cultural life. In 2015, the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), which has been looking into the place of women in the news media every five years since 1995, found that in Europe, women accounted for only a quarter of the people we see or read about in the news. This compared to a mere 16 % in 1995, but women’s visibility had dropped by 1 % since 2010. On average, women represented 25.7 % of people in the news across the 22 EU Member States included in the survey, with a spectrum from 35.4 % in Romania and 34.9 % in Bulgaria to just 19.3 % in Cyprus and 16.4 % in Malta. When women appeared as news subjects, they were more likely than men to be giving personal testimonies or eyewitness accounts and far less likely to be providing specialist knowledge. In Europe as a whole, less than one in five (18 %) of experts or commentators were women.
The situation is similar in the entertainment media. An analysis of the most popular US releases and nationally produced films in countries including France, Germany and the UK between 2010 and 2013, found that women represented a minority of speaking characters and leads, and that female characters were more likely to be portrayed in ‘sexy attire’ or partially nude. Likewise, a review of the 109 video games showcased at the industry’s annual E3 exhibition in 2017 found that 7 % had solo female protagonists, compared to 26 % with solo male heroes. This was an improvement over 2016, when 12 times as many games featured male leads. More games now allow players to choose the main character’s gender (52 %). However, as in film and in advertising, the research finds that female characters in video games are more likely than male characters to be portrayed in overtly sexualised and stereotyped ways.
Women are also under-represented in the workforce across media sectors, especially at decision-making levels and in the governing bodies that influence media policy. According to data from the European Institute for Gender Equality, in 2017, women accounted for only 35 % of CEOs and board members in public broadcasting companies across the EU-28 (from 0% in Poland to 64.3 % in Lithuania). The figures for news reporting are better, but on average women still represent a minority (40 %) of news reporters across the 22 EU countries surveyed by the GMMP and are less likely to be assigned to more prestigious ‘hard’ news stories in areas such as economics (39 %) and politics (38 %). In film, women are in a minority behind the camera as directors, producers and writers, whilst in the gaming industry, a 2015 survey found that women represented under a quarter of workers, with a low proportion (11 %) employed in content creation. This survey also identified wide wage disparities between women and men, particularly at the higher levels, and markedly different views on the extent of gender equality in the industry. Only 23 % of women, compared to 40 % of men felt that it offered equal treatment and opportunities for all. A new study commissioned by the European Parliament also highlights a number of concerns expressed by women working in the media industry, including widespread precarity, discrimination in pay, hiring, and promotion, lack of work-life balance measures, sexist working cultures, including ‘normalisation’ of sexual harassment and bullying, and the absence – or ineffective enforcement – of codes of practice and regulations.
What is the impact of gender imbalance and gender stereotyping?
At its worst, gender stereotyping in the media and advertising can propagate harmful attitudes about masculinity and the position of women that perpetuate discrimination, sexual objectification and gender-based violence. Limiting and positive messages and role models conveyed in the media also matter because they influence both girls’ and boys’ perceptions of their own abilities and the directions they take in life. Research finds that media stereotypes about STEM jobs are one of the barriers to girls’ participation, but that traditional and new media could be used to dismantle them, promote more diverse representations of jobs in STEM fields and engage young people and wider society in conversations about gender equality. On 8 March, the European Commission will publish a new study on Women in ICT, with trend data and recommendations for tackling the digital gender gap. Its 2013 study found that the EU has a gender gap in advanced IT skills, tertiary education, employment and decision-making in the digital sector, with girls and women less likely to continue studying science and technology beyond the age of 15, enter or continue a career in ICT, reach specialist and managerial levels or start their own tech companies. EIGE data indicate that only 16.7 % of specialists in the IT sector are women (with the ranking ranging from 30 % in Bulgaria, 26 % in Romania and 25 % in Latvia and Lithuania, to 9 % in Slovakia and 11 % in the Czech Republic. Access to the digital sector will be important for girls and women as individuals – since it offers highly skilled, better paid and ‘future-proof‘ jobs – and for the economy.
Is there a need for further action?
The ‘digital revolution‘ is blurring the boundaries between traditional and online media, and fundamentally changing many other areas of our lives. Could this alone be enough to shift entrenched gender stereotypes and create a more gender-balanced media workforce? Would increasing the number of women in newsrooms, studios and senior management automatically bring positive change? A recent UNESCO report raises these questions and cautions against easy answers. It notes that the GMMP project referred to above found that women journalists are more likely to use women as sources, leading to more balanced reporting, which reflects the views of more and diverse communities. However, women’s visibility and representation was no higher in online than traditional news media. In recent months, we have seen the power of women’s activism in the #MeToo campaign, but it is not yet clear what the long-term results will be. Recommendations for changing the picture for women in the media include: the collection of better sex-disaggregated data; national legislation addressing sexist attitudes in the media and advertising industries; the adoption of policies by media regulators to improve gender balance in media organisations; internal surveys and binding codes of conduct in media companies; training for all media workers and specific leadership training and mentoring for women; and awards for gender-aware journalism and advertising. There have also been calls for a European Directive on sexism in the media. In the EU context, Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) has drafted a report on gender equality in the media sector in the EU, to go to plenary in March, which proposes action by the Commission, Member States, national regulatory bodies and media companies.
For more data: Gender equality in the EU’s digital and media sectors, EPRS Infographic, March 2018
For more information on the EU legal and policy context: Gender equality in the media and digital sectors, EPRS Plenary at a Glance, March 2018
For more information on advertising: Sexism in advertising, EPRS At a glance, March 2018
For further recent EPRS publications on gender equality, see our updated Topical Digest.