Gender balance in journalism

Why are women still underrepresented in media?

On International Women’s Day, time to consider why the fourth estate is still failing at gender parity
Photo: Marjory Collins

Despite all the women who work, and the many who are experts in their field, women remain underrepresented in media, both behind the scenes and out front on TV screens and in print. This is a worrying reality we should consider on this International Women’s Day. Many battles remain to be fought for gender equality, especially in the public sphere.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in Ricochet’s French edition and has been translated into English.

Not only are women underrepresented in Canadian media, but according to the numbers of a recent study conducted by Informed Opinions, an organization that works to reduce the gap between men and women in the public sphere, there has been little change in the situation over the past decade.

Today, according to the research, men represent “71 per cent of all those quoted or interviewed for newspaper articles and broadcast segments” in Canadian media. The study was based on gender representation in print and broadcast media and included CTV, the National Post, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC Radio’s The Current and the Quebec television program Tout le monde en parle.

“The independently-conducted study reviewed more than 1,400 articles and broadcast segments from seven Canadian newspapers and media outlets over the course of three distinct monitoring periods between October and December 2015,” states a press release. The results reveal that women’s voices make up only 29% of those being heard on air or quoted in print.

These numbers don’t surprise Marylise Hamelin, independent journalist and feminist blogger. “This study confirms what I’ve long suspected. It suffices to pick up the daily paper and go through it, counting the number of photos of men and women. That gives you a good idea of the latter’s place in our society.”

In Hamelin’s view, even when a place is made for women in the media, the motives behind it are not always noble, given as an example the last episode of Tout le monde en parle, which featured Sophie Durocher and Geneviève St-Germain discussing feminism and the proposals of Minister Thériault. “It seems evident the producers privileged the ‘show’ aspect instead of the substantive issues. In the end, we were treated to a sort of ‘cat fight’ that reinforces the stereotype according to which women are quarrelous and emotional by nature.”

Many factors explain these distressing numbers and the slow or stagnant evolution of women’s presence in media, according to Lise Millette, who serves as president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec and is active with Informed Opinions.

“The exclusion of women is not always systematic or wilful, but in some cases the fact of not making the effort to go and find them is not even conscious. Often, the first reflex is to go and find a man, even though there are more and more women with degrees and specialization who could take their place in the public sphere and contribute to the diversity of experts on a subject.”

Millette, who is a journalist with QMI, notes that sometimes women decline to be interviewed when solicited by media, because of a lack of confidence to express themselves on a subject. Factors related to work and family also play a part, for example, limiting their availability to appear on evening television panels.

“There are places where women quite simply don’t want to go, like ‘les radios poubelle’ in Quebec. They don’t want to go there and debate,” Millette explains. “‘Because it’s 2015’ doesn’t apply in the media, and yet we should be the reflection of society. Even the government has parity!”

According to author and journalist Pascale Navarro, “few women are cited, solicited, because it’s assumed that expertise is neutral. That said, it often is. However, the person expressing it is not. That’s what has to be looked at closely.”

“Socially, from the point of view of democracy, we can not just let nature take its course, because that tends towards the most simple, and the most simple reproduces what we already know. If we force parity in media or elsewhere, we change the structures and the system. More women will be present, more women will express themselves. They will make a habit of speaking, of responding,because we will have changed the culture. That transformation is an invitation to women. They would no longer feel like ‘imposters’ or ‘not legitimate’ speakers.”

Turning the tables

For Millette, all is not bleak. She hopes that the study contributes to raising awareness, and ultimately changing the situation. “I refuse to be defeatist and say to myself, ‘That’s it, there’s nothing we can do.’ Trust is something that is built and that is learned. Strong women, like strong men, became that way over time. I believe that we don’t just need models, but also need to reinforce the sense of competence and develop in each of us the need, if not the duty, to play a role.”

Informed Opinions recommends that media take a number of actions in order to achieve gender parity, as much in their choices of subjects and guests as in their staff and writers. These include, for example, equalizing the respondents to a “vox pop” (series of interviews carried out with passersby on the street) rather than simply choosing the first three people if they’re all men, or explaining to a woman who declines to be interviewed that there are many male sources on the same subject but that a female perspective on the issue would be interesting. It’s also recommended that if a discussion is dominated by men, the moderator should seek out comments from women directly, in order to ensure that their points of view is heard.

In short, many things are possible in order to bring balance to the place of women in the media, provided a conscious and sincere effort is made.

Millette is optimistic. “I believe that the appeal for a diversity of voices is being made and heard more and more, as much so in terms of media representation as in our cultural and televisual landscape. I believe that people are more and more conscious that the microphone has to be shared and the spotlight shone on the shadows. The study reveals a very weak evolution of things in 20 years, and I want to believe we won’t need another 20 years for things to change. And maybe the first change consists of not waiting for the invitation.”

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