OPINION: Women you see in the news matter. Here’s why

OPINION: Women you see in the news matter. Here’s why

By Jane Godia

In 1995, when the curtains fell on one of the largest meetings that ever brought women together, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.

26 years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are:

  • Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication.
  • Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.

As we marked International Women’s Day on Monday, it was an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making.

Women cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced; be it as sources of news or as the subjects of reports.

Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women: as sources, authors or main characters of news reports.

Some progress has been evident with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers (CEOs), editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors.

But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards.

In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.

Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa.

Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.

The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.

So International Women’s Day was a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge.

Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism. The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal.

It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.

We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers.

In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.

They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience.

So let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.

As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally.

As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.

Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme.

WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media.