Women’s Voices ‘Locked Out’ in Covid-19 Reporting

Cape Town — Due to the political nature of the crisis,  the marginalization of women in decision-making roles in the countries analyzed “locks in” the suppression of women’s voices, the report said.

The study, The Missing Perspectives of Women in COVID-19 News, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation across six countries – South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, India, United States, and the United Kingdom – was aimed at understanding the extent to which women were represented in news and also how women have been silenced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It analyzed indicators of gender equality in reporting in terms of women as protagonists and as sources of news expertise and the coverage of gender equality issues in general in Covid-19 reporting. The report raised concerns about how women’s voices have been blocked out during the COVID-19 pandemic, largely because of society’s patriarchal values. Each woman’s voice in news coverage of the crisis is “drowned out” by at least three, four, or five men, the report said.

The report analyzed sampled quotes from 80 news publications across the six selected countries and women were five times less likely to feature as protagonists in headlines than men.

Chief communications officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Susan Byrnes, said that the media sector has a huge role to play in shaping how women are perceived as leaders and role modelling what women’s representation can look like.

Byrnes said: “The (Gates) foundation commissioned this report as part of a broader effort for media government, private sector, civil society, and philanthropic organizations like ours to identify what specific actions they will commit on gender equality.”

Audience strategy expert and author of the report, Luba Kassova, said the research objective was a way to understand the representation of women in news coverage and benchmarks for news providers who wish to drive equality in their organizations.

“Women share of quoted voicing in news remains marginalized and we have seen no substantive progress being made in the last decade, based on the data that we had. Persistent patriarchal values operating across societies that often remain unnoticed or unconscious are at the heart of the problem. The proportion of women journalists in newsrooms has remained flat since 2000 across all analyzed countries.”

Kassova said women are between two and six times less likely to be quoted in news as experts, protagonists, or sources in the six countries which we found. The women given a voice in the pandemic are rarely portrayed as authoritative experts or empowered individuals, but as victims or people affected by the disease, or sources of personal opinion, it found. Kassova attributed patriarchal values as the greatest barrier to women’s voices in the news. The report found that women’s scientific and political expertise were undervalued and underused in Covid-19 news coverage, and the public remained biased in favor of patriarchal values and social norms.

Kassova also highlighted that South Africa has the most progressive constitutions in the world that doesn’t tolerate any form of gender discrimination and there are a lot of initiatives are being put in place. In South Africa, for example, which has the best regulatory context for gender equality, it has a bearing on how women are represented at all levels, including within the media.  South Africa leads in terms of political representation and representation of women in newsroom leadership.

Kassova recommended a gender parity checklist that she highly encourages news providers to look at. “Because it’s so systemic and deep, change can only occur if it is encouraged on an individual level, organizational level, system-level, or societal level,” Kassova said.

“If one of those factors moves in the wrong direction, then changes are not sustainable and, in fact, there is regression happening.”

Kassova pointed out three key recommendations:

– It is important to reframe the case for change by introducing a more persuasive narrative frame, such as the business case which argues that journalism models are under pressure. We know that and attracting women’s audiences is a growth opportunity.

– Achieving success requires a consolidated effort creates across the industry. And I would argue across all the countries.

– News organizations should consider using more interventions that are based on new disciplines such as behavioral science which aim to change behaviors in a way that is not painful for journalists.

So the types of interventions that you will see suggested in the report, there are three kinds.

The first is about increasing awareness and I cannot stress how important that is because unless we’re aware that there is a problem. There is no way we can change. For example, introducing gender sensitivity training, not just that news organization, but also in journalism schools and secondary schools.

The second intervention is removing barriers such as ensuring that there are parental leave, policies in place, and flexible working policies in place which are particularly helpful for women who are still seen as the primary carers in society.

The third is creating new habits and initiatives for example of creating lists of women experts scientists for journalists to be able to have access when they’re pressed for time.

Pamella Makotsi-Sittani, the executive editor of the  Nation Media Group in Kenya, said the report revealed a double crisis. She explained that the first crisis is that “it continues to be a man’s world 25 years after the Beijing Declaration and we’ve not seen any progress since that time. Men have been making the decisions and even where we have women in leadership, like in my own organization, women are still outnumbered in cannot really call the shots”.

The other crisis is how women’s voices “have been muffled by the media”.

“This is a crisis that we need to look at because, if we do not have the perspectives of both men and women in society, we cannot have an equal society,” Makotsi-Sittani said.


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