Sexism in public life is hardly new, but in the last few days angry scenes in the Australian parliament and some sharp research in Britain highlights the particular role media play in creating unacceptable stereotypes of women.
When Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard vigorously rounded on opposition leader Tony Abbott last week accusing him of hypocrisy and misogyny she was widely praised, but not by the mainstream media which said she was diverting attention from problems of sexism within her own party.
However, this was a predictable media response say observers who complain that when it comes to bias, discrimination and gender stereotypes journalism is part of the problem
And as if to prove the point, along comes a survey reported today by The Guardian which reveals that blokey journalism, demeaning pictures of women and a predominance of male bylines, are rampant in Britain’s national newspapers, including the so-called quality press.
A detailed month-long analysis of nine national newspapers by researchers from Women in Journalism found that male reporters wrote 78% of all front-page articles and men accounted for 84% of those mentioned or quoted in lead pieces.
The reason for this bias is obvious to campaigners against sexist journalism like Anna van Heeswijk, chief executive of the group Object, who points to male domination of newspaper executive jobs. “Changing the number of female writers and the ways in which women are portrayed in media is crucial if we are serious about wanting a socially responsible press,” she says.
It’s a challenge facing media both in Britain and Australia. A recent study by Monash University in Melbourne found that around 57% of women working in media have been sexually harassed. The report says women are badly under-represented in the top levels of media management, holding just 10% of positions, compared with an international average of 27%.
The report’s author, Louise North, says that the negative media response to Gillard reflects the fact that most leader writers are white, middle-aged men with no perception of gender bias. “They don’t want to acknowledge that it happens within their newsrooms,” she says, “and they certainly wouldn’t be open to challenging some of those positions.”
Gillard’s intervention is one of the most trenchant statements against sexism in politics ever made by a political leader. Women in powerful positions tend to avoid waging campaigns over sexism not least to avoid exposing themselves to personal comment from serial sexists in hostile media.
Her statement was more a piece of neat political footwork then a thoughtful, planned attempt to kick sexism out of politics. She was forced to speak out because of opposition criticism of embarrassing sexist text messages sent by Peter Slipper, the parliament speaker. Shortly after Gillard’s speech he quietly resigned as media turned their fire on the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, media would be unwise to use this as an excuse for ignoring the problems of sexist attitudes inside journalism.The media’s own glass ceiling often prevents women getting into positions of power, but this is a problem that extends from the top to the bottom of the media pyramid. The gender gap is also found in working conditions. In most countries working women are paid less than men, often in spite of legislation that supposedly guarantees equal treatment.
Discrimination in journalism was comprehensively exposed in a global report on 500 media companies in almost 60 countries produced last year by the International Women’s media Foundation.
Of course, it is not just a media problem. In business, as well as politics and media, the dominant image of leadership is overwhelmingly male.
Changing this will require a radical shift in the male mindset in all areas of public life but particularly in journalism. Although men in the executive belt of media may not like to admit it, the scourge of gender discrimination needs to be fought not just in politics and business, but also in the newsroom.