Cecilia Jastrzembska considers the male dominance of the British media.
How Much Has Really Changed? The Male Media Political Lens In Media: Alive and Kicking
In journalism, the daily consumption of news from a myriad of domestic and international outlets is of course compulsory rather than optional. Often, themes emerge from different ends of the spectrum, and one of those recently has been the alarming stagnation, or even reversal of progress on women’s rights. One would expect that post-pandemic, and generally in the Western world, that though slow, inroads are being made. Yet with a British woman recently being sentenced to 28 months in jail for purchasing abortion pills over the outdated UK legal limit, a United Nations report showing that 9/10 people are biased against women, Code First Girls’ study highlighting the fact that the majority of women drop out of tech roles pre-35, our very own Gendered Impact of the Pandemic pamphlet data demonstrating an undeniable gap that still has not been closed and shows no sign of being so, and the Un_Biased Report substantiating this on an economic front, one would be forgiven for asking why on earth so little has changed.
Turning Back The Clock
Rewinding to Tuesday February 6th in 1918 takes us back to one of the most important milestones for women; when we finally won the right to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffragette movement spearheaded the campaign when her local branch of the Independent Labour Party refused to admit female members. She founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1890 and made it her sole mission to champion women’s representation in politics. Her motivational speeches inspired thousands to join whose voices had been suppressed.
It is interesting to speculate where we would be today had Emmeline not refused to accept gender-based exclusion. Back then, women were to be seen and not heard, in a very literal sense. And yet, fast forwarding to now, whilst we of course have the right to vote, has modern (Western) society really changed its attitudes to, and treatment of, women that much? Of course, this is a very broad question, and one must be clear on what elements they are evaluating change. Here we will look at the characterisation of women in the media, one of the most comprehensive metaphorical magnifying glasses to examine the state of equality with.
Male, Pale and Stale
Media is a mirror of society which helps bridge the gap between governments and their citizens. It is more powerful than most governments combined, in that it is often the majority deciding factor in who gets elected and who doesn’t, and holds instant, lasting influence on the court of public opinion on everything from the way countries are viewed to celebrities. However, to use an analogy, it has gradually become obvious that the majority of AI programmes are flawed, owing to the fact that their datasets are inherently biased. As predominantly men create them and as humans generally are flawed and biased, these biases are of course passed down into the systems they create, manifesting later on the programs take shape.
To compare the ‘creators’ of media, a previous report published by The International Women in Media Foundation, ‘The Status of Women in the News”, examined 500 companies in nearly 60 countries, highlighting the fact that men hold 64% of media related jobs, in comparison to 36 per cent held by women. In 2016, City University in London carried out a racial demographic survey on 700 news professionals which found that journalism is also unsurprisingly white and middle class, with 94% identifying as white British and from priveleged backgrounds. The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) also recently published a damning report exposing the shocking lack of progress on diversity in UK media, as black journalists accounted for only 0.2 per cent of the workforce. So, like the bias emerging in AI programs from a highly concentrated and homogenous set of creators, it is no surprise that news still has so little diversity with so few women at the levels where decisions are made.
Women also remain under-promoted and underpaid. They stagnate in junior management positions, whilst men climb the career ladder and vanish off into the proverbial stratosphere. Research by Women in Journalism also found that not a single British newspaper ran a front page story that was written by a black reporter, highlighting that institutionalised racism is going absolutely nowhere fast.
Spotlight: Portrayal of Female Politicians Over The Years
In 2013, former Prime Minister David Cameron admitted “We need more top-placed women” and urged big institutions to promote female talent. After backlash for the plain hypocrisy on his part, given that he had barely any women in leadership positions, he appointed more women to his cabinet on July 16, 2014. And yet right wing media characterised the women as barely more than puppets for show. For example, The Daily Mail referred to the new ministers as ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ arriving at Downing Street “showcasing style credentials.” A picture of Esther McVey, which was composed to look as if she was strutting down a catwalk, was captioned: “Leading the style set is Esther McVey, who looked chic in a grey Vivienne Westwood dress with her long blonde hair perfectly coiffed.” So, readers may remember her choice of clothes branding, but they will never remember what she stood for.
In 2017, the Daily Mail struck again. Its headline “Legsit” sparked a huge sexism row for featuring a picture of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, declaring “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”. This drew fury from politicians as well as commentators calling it “moronic”, condemning the paper for objectifying women to boost sales. Never mind the fact that these were the two of the most powerful politician leaders in the country at the time attending a meeting to discuss one of the biggest political developments for a decade; the attention was on their legs.
Similarly, in November 2022, a reporter suggested that the now former Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern met with Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin "just because" of their similarities, such as age and gender. Jacinda expertly shut it down, responding: "My first question is I wonder whether or not anyone ever asked [former U.S. President] Barack Obama and [former New Zealand Prime Minister] John Key and if they met because they were of similar age”, which was well received, but ultimately, she never should have been put in the position of being forced to waste time calling out thinly veiled misogyny instead of answering appropriate questions, such as her country's dependence on $199 million in Finnish imports or other trade relations.
This style of reporting perpetuates stereotypes as it reinforces the narrative that a woman’s aesthetic is ultimately what’s most important, rather than their credibility, values and ideologies.
What Progress Has Actually Been Made?
Before 2020, only one broadsheet was edited by a woman - Katharine Viner at The Guardian. Since the Fleet Street shakeup however, more than a third of UK national newspapers are now edited by women. For example, Victoria Newton is in control of The Sun, Alison Phillips oversees The Daily Mirror, The Sunday Mirror and Sunday People. Roula Khalaf also took the reins as the first female editor for the Financial Times, and more have followed. In total, 8 out of 22 daily and Sunday national newspapers in the UK are being edited by women, more than at any given time in history. Whilst this move will no doubt make strides in shifting the same old narrative and, it moves at a glacial pace as it’s still an industry in denial. A report found that female roles in top-grossing films also increased “slightly” last year, and generally, more women than ever hold political decision-making posts worldwide, but gender parity is still practically nowhere to be seen, as found by the IPU-UN Map of Women In Politics 2023.
Therefore, we must not be fooled by the gains made in name rather than in practicality. There is very little real strength in muscle built by water weight. Women must step up to fill the cultural vacuum left behind by not only media, but politics, business and now particularly tech, and those industries in turn must look inwards to vastly improve their offer to us.
Louisa Eagle is a journalist writing on a variety of topics and an active member of the Young Fabian Women’s Advocacy Group.
Cecilia works as a Director in UK Government and is the Career Development Officer on the Young Fabians National Executive Committee. She is also Head of National Coordination for Young European Movement and a Board Trustee for charity VCS. She is a public speaker and writes extensively on women’s rights, AI, environmental sustainability and recently launched the Gendered Impact of the Pandemic: Rebuilding the World for Women Pamphlet.