Women, Gender & Media

Tuesday 10 May 2005, Jac sm Kee [APC Women’s Networking Support Programme ]

When I was a trainer at a media and gender workshop in 2002, the only male participant there confessed, “Our organisation is not prioritising gender actually. We are more concerned about other issues – issues which are political”. This statement reveals much about the stand that most media institutions take on gender.

The Asia Media Summit Pre-Workshop on Gender, Kuala Lumpur, 8 May 2005
Gender, Women and the Media: An Overview

This paper was presented at The Asia Media Summit Pre-Workshop on Gender, Kuala Lumpur, 8 May 2005. It outlines a brief overview on the issue of women, gender and the media at two levels, and some strategies that can be explored in order to address the situation. The summit is registered as a “Regional Thematic Meeting” with a view to contributing to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in November 2005.
When I was a trainer at a media and gender workshop in 2002, the only male participant there confessed, “Our organisation is not prioritising gender actually. We are more concerned about other issues – issues which are political”. This statement reveals much about the stand that most media institutions take on gender.

Although it is almost impossible now to speak about rights and equality without at least mentioning gender, the treatment is often cursory; as though by the mere mention of the word ‘gender’, or with a token representation of a handful of women, gender issues have been sufficiently dealt with. This is not enough. There is a need to unearth the various levels of unequal gender relations at play in media as a vital institution that can enable or limit the progressive development of a participatory and democratic civil society. This role is being increasingly recognised and adopted by the various stakeholders and actors within the field, and I believe that workshops such as this is an important space for us to figure out what they are.

The issue of gender and the media can broadly be understood at two levels, both implicating and affecting each other:
1. the participation of women in decision-making and expression in the media
2. representation or portrayal of women and gender relations in the media

Participation and Expression
At the most basic level, women are under-represented in media institutions. In the Global Media Monitoring Project participated by 71 countries in 1995, only 36% of journalists were women in Asia. Those who are within the field are often not in decision-making positions and are ghettoised into specific areas. What do I mean by ghettoised? A ghetto means a space, usually a section of a city, which is occupied by a minority group who live there especially because of social, economic, or legal pressure. They are often unrecognised, hidden within the margins and relatively powerless. Women’s relationship to the media occupies this space in a very real sense.

Although women are increasingly entering into media, top management is still largely male dominated and the culture of patriarchy is perpetuated through this disparity. There is a gender division of labour that is evident through the way that stories are assigned. ‘Soft’ issues like fashion, culture, arts and lifestyle are often consigned to women media practitioners, whereas ‘hard’ and what is considered ‘serious’ issues like finance, economics and politics are often within the purview of their male counterparts. The criteria of newsworthiness are similarly and consequently understood through this gendered lens. Headline materials often constitute of ‘hard issues’ whilst ‘soft issues’ are shunted to ‘special’ and supplementary segments of the media. Gender stereotyped views and attitudes, such as the attachment of productive incapacity and women’s reproductive roles, can hinder women’s opportunities to assume decision-making positions. Further, sexual harassment has been particularly cited as one of the methods to control and exclude women from these positions in Asia Pacific.

There are few countries within this region that have specific legal provisions that protects against gender discrimination. Even when there are – like Article 8 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution which prohibits discriminataion on the basis of inter-alia, gender – they are seen to have jurisdiction only within the public sector. As media is becoming increasingly privatised and concentrated on a few transnational media giants, this can be a serious cause of concern when individuals within the field are left with little legal recourse to ensure the protection of their right to equal gender status. Government intervention often focuses on licensing and ownership as opposed to structures and practices within the institutions that discriminates against women, or prevents their views from being expressed. This contributes to the continued marginalisation of women’s themes in the media, their exclusion from socio-political institutions in the public sphere, and severely curtails media democratisation in the promotion of diverse cultural, social and political worldviews.

Women’s Portrayal in the Media
Consistently throughout Asia, women have been portrayed in the media as victims, subservient, nurturing, sacrificing and objectified sexualised beings. This not only inaccurately represents the diversity of women’s lives, roles and experiences within this complex and rich region, women’s contributions to the socio-political and economic development of society are often neglected.

The perpetuation of stereotypes in images and representation solidifies women’s traditional roles and unequal gender relations in multiple ways. Most visibly, women are seen as mourners at tragedies or as victims of violence. The Global Media Monitoring Project mentioned above found that out of the small number of women who were interviewees in news stories (14%), 29% of them were as victims of accidents, crimes or other events .This does not only represent women as helpless subjects without agency, it also fails to emphasise men’s role as perpetrators in instances of violence against women. Further, the dissemination of these messages affects women’s self-confidence, mobility and subsequently access and participation in public spaces (for fear of assault).

There are many more examples, such as women’s portrayals in an increasingly consumer-driven culture and the commodification of women’s bodies in advertising, pornography and conflict situations, that can be cited and raised, but that would take far more time than this session would allow for.

Strategies for Change
I would like to instead, spend a few minutes looking at strategies that we can explore in order to address this situation. These are two strategic objectives that have been outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action adopted by State governments at the Fourth World Conference for Women in 1995. They address broadly the two levels of discrimination as have been explained summarily. 1) to increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication, and, 2) promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.

As media practitioners and institutions, independent code of ethics that specifically addresses gender issues within this field can be developed and implemented. There are already media codes of ethics in existence in the Asia region, such as Malaysia’s Canons of Journalism, Singapore Journalists’ Code of Professional Conduct and South Korea’s Press Ethics Code. These codes can be further honed to ensure that sexist and stereotyped coverage of women are considered ethically unacceptable within the industry. Self-regulatory mechanisms such as adoption of sexual harassment policies within media institutions can dismantle one of the real obstacles that hinder women’s full participation in media.

Consistent and sustained capacity building of all members within media institutions – whether male or female, reporters, editors or producers – on gender issues can not only raise awareness on the complexities and implications of gender dynamics and power relations within this field, but also broaden the base of ‘experts’ that are able to work with these issues meaningfully. More space and airtime can be allocated to issues related to women that break away from the usual ghettoisation of areas traditionally considered as ‘women’s issues’. One concrete example would be to increase the portrayal of women as significant contributors to society as leaders, workers and thinkers, not just as carers, sex objects or victims. The development of appropriate alternative and community media can also enable the dissemination of diverse expressions and experiences, particularly from marginalised groups who are better able to own and manage them at the community level.

The issue of gender should be at the forefront of discussions concerning freedom of expression. International commitments such as the WSIS Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action and the Beijing Platform for Action need to be aligned to understand women’s rights and gender equality as a cross cutting principle. Particularly in light of the development of digital information and communication technologies in media that have the capacity to transcend national boundaries and enable proliferation of discourses at unprecedented breadth and speed, gender dimensions crucially need be to be surfaced and addressed. Otherwise, the move towards building Information Societies for economic, social and political development will be one that is substantively impoverished for want of principles in equality and non-discrimination.

Media has immense power in this process. It is one of the primary institutions which help shape the world, and how we as individuals, make sense of it. Taking accountability in this role and interrogating its own practices, perceptions, expectations and visions is crucial to imagine a society that is abundant in diversity, critical of inequality and resistant to marginalisation. Unblinding to gender is at the heart of this process.

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