Women getting a raw deal is not news
By Najma Ismail | January 22nd 2021
As a gender equality and women empowerment advocate and journalist, I have long been disturbed by the manner in which media suffocates women voices and women issues.
I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised when a male senior editor of this newspaper not only engaged me about a recent TV news feature I hosted on this subject but also, challenged me to publish a written opinion as well.
“Story za wamama“, as my male colleagues in the industry call them, are often broadcast as an afterthought and slotted at the tail end of TV news broadcasts when viewers have either gone to sleep or switched channels. Newspapers, on the other hand, carry something so tiny that you could miss it altogether even when you own a vintage magnifying glass.
According to the Harvard Business Review, women are far less likely than men to be seen in the media. As journalists telling stories, they fall at 37 per cent. As experts, they constitute only 19 per cent, and as the subject of stories, they only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news.
A recent report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is no less shocking: Patriarchal norms, the study reported, are one of the main reasons why there are barriers for women in the news media. For every news headline written about a woman, there are six written about men. Women featured in the news have very few protagonists or experts/sources.
This gender-imbalanced picture of society, to quote the Harvard Business Review, can reinforce and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, especially since it is an open secret that the business of news is a man’s affair and that most decisions are made by male editors.
So how do we, as the news media, fairly represent the world when half of it, which is women, is not represented in our dockets? Are women not newsmakers? Are their stories so insignificant that newsrooms consider them not worth their time? It is said that in politics, women are more likely to think of the needs of children and families. Are these views not newsworthy?
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Most news editors/decision-makers in the newsroom do not prioritise women stories and often treat them as “other stories” in newsroom lingo. Prime time News will never position such stories high up in their running orders and rarely will women stories receive front-page treatment in our publications, except maybe if the story is about a scandal.
Of course, this scandal is likely to involve a male protagonist with a woman featuring somewhere as happened recently when a senator died, or is a crime of passion, perhaps, where a woman gorged out the eyes of another woman!
One would argue that female journalists are not doing enough to push the female agenda on the floor of the newsroom. But the patriarchal norms earlier mentioned enable the continuing dominance of the male perspectives in news-making and limit women’s presence in news stories as news protagonists and experts. Besides, the number of women at the decision-making level in our newsrooms is dismal.
Which is not to say women journalists are blameless. It is said that women dominate journalism schools but not newsrooms. Why is this so?
Women journalists must normalise exposing themselves to hard-hitting agenda setting stories and not be comfortable with lifestyle and entertainment stories. They must dive into politics and governance, finance and business, health, labour and environment -- the so-called big stories that can not only bring women issues to the fore, but also result in career development in the newsroom.
Above all, they must engage in self-development, take up challenges, aspire to be in the top editorial positions, speak up and never tire to push the woman story and agenda.
This is critical because society is strongly influenced by the way the news media portrays women and if the news media trivializes issues concerning women then society will follow suit.
For instance, when the media dedicates acres of space on “slayqueens” and the lifestyle and busts and butts of female celebrities as opposed to the achievements and lives of solid women at every level of society, our daughters end up looking in the wrong place for role models.
Besides, as of 2015, Kenyan households led by women stood at 36 per cent. These are women who make decisions at household and community levels. How do we drive economic development when their voices are muffled?
Under-reporting women and their issues is also bad for business, both for media houses and organisations. There is a general fallacy that women are only interested in health, entertainment and lifestyle issues. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is an army of jobless women, entrepreneurs, farmers, professionals and so forth who don’t give a damn about the latest celebrity scandal. We need to hear their stories, their challenges and achievements so that we can inspire the next generation of women leaders.
It is incumbent upon men who make decisions in the newsroom to sit down and reflect the message they pass to their daughters when they allow sexist and misogynistic content to get published or drown out female voices altogether.
Indeed, are they preparing their sons to be good husbands and fathers of daughters? You can bet they don’t muffle their wives’ and daughters’ voices at home, so why then does this become the norm at the workplace?
While gender parity in news can be entrenched as a matter of newsroom policy, that is not necessarily the best way forward. What is needed is a change of heart and a deliberate effort by everyone in the newsroom, especially those who make decisions, to give more prominence to women voices – when hiring and assigning journalists, when seeking expert views and women covering news stories. News should cease being a man’s affair and become everyone’s affair.
We can make progress. We can change this pervasive and archaic culture. We can shape and change how women are perceived by eliminating sexism in our reporting and increasing the number of women sources and experts in our news and striving towards equal representation in news.
The time to address the gender gap in news media is now or else this lack of exposure for women will have a negative effect in future because we risk raising generations of women and girls that are undervalued.
- Najma Ismael is a TV journalist and editor with the Standard Group
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