Women are persistently underrepresented in the media

A woman being interviewed by journalists.

OsloMet researcher and emeritus professor Elisabeth Eide spent much of her career looking into why women are still underrepresented as sources and experts. Eide's path to studying gender disparity in the Norwegian press started in Paris in 1980.

The OsloMet professor had the opportunity to interview Catherine Rihoit, a French writer and biographer who had recently published several books on the treatment of women in society.  Rihoit said something that stuck with Eide: “If an alien were led into a room full of newspapers, it would think 90 percent of beings on this earth were men”.

Ten years later as a journalism school lecturer, this statement inspired Eide to begin researching how women are represented in Norwegian newspapers. Her surveys of newspapers, combined with questionnaires sent to 500 journalists and editors, became the first major report on this subject in Norway.

Several of her students have also written term papers on the topic and together they published an anthology on gender and media in 2000. Since then, she has used her perspective on gender representation to investigate other groups’ marginalisation in the media as well.

A global perspective

Eide has also been involved with the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP),  a global research project that monitors radio, TV, newspapers, and digital media around the world for gender bias and stereotypes.

Every five years they spend a day quantitatively and qualitatively analysing news reports to understand the state of gender bias in the media. In their most recent assessment in 2020, they found that women continue to be underrepresented. Only 40% of TV news sources were women while radio had only 36% and newspapers barely 28%. The number of women who were presented as experts was even lower.

The full results of the GMMP study, which includes approximately 130 countries across the world, will be presented this summer.

Root causes

Eide found that a major component of this disparity is sexism and stereotypes about women. This often means that even when women are interviewed as sources, they tend to be asked for stories about family life and what Eide refers to as “the caring angle”. Eide's research has also shown that women tend to be more hesitant than men to act as a source in the media, especially if they are asked to comment on something they consider to be outside their expertise. The media’s focus on elites, and the fact that the majority of top business executives and many political leaders are still men, reinforces this bias.

OsloMet researcher and emeritus professor Elisabeth Eide.

OsloMet researcher and emeritus professor Elisabeth Eide. Photo: Pål Arne Kvalnes

Ageism also plays a role, in Eide’s view. Previous research shows that while gender parity is much better among younger people, above the age of 60, women are called upon as sources by members of the media less than men in the same age groups. “Age is more of an issue for women than men because you’re expected to still have your looks” says Eide. “’Distinguished old man’ isn’t a problem for visual media but ‘distinguished old woman’ might be”.

The inertia of sexism

Newsroom culture can be slow to change.  This has hampered progress toward women’s representation as sources and experts. Journalists tend to call on sources they have worked with before, who are quite often mostly men. Especially in fields where women are underrepresented, newsroom professionals may not make the extra effort to find women to interview.

Cuts to newsroom staff have made this problem worse. Media outlets that used to employ many specialised journalists now have a reduced staff of mainly generalists who have less time to cultivate a pool of new sources and rely even more on those they already know.

On the other hand, Eide also observes that more young female experts are represented, not least when it comes to commenting on foreign news.

The Covid pandemic has not changed this phenomenon but it has made the problem more apparent. Among the people that are regularly called on to give statements about the pandemic, the Norwegian health minister and heads of the Norwegian Directorate of Health, men outnumber women. Women are, to a larger degree, selected to represent “cases” about how the pandemic and regulations have affected people.

A promising trend

Not one to relax during retirement, Eide now works with colleagues and journalists in Afghanistan to run courses on conflict and peace journalism. In addition, in 2018, she started a new project together with colleagues from 23 countries focussed on interviewing young climate activists through Media Climate, a group she has co-chaired since 2008. Of the 31 people involved around the world, 14 were women.

Many of these young activists, both women and men, were specifically inspired by the activism of Greta Thunberg. These youths are encouraged to become science ambassadors who communicate the science of climate change through their actions, strikes, and arguments in media.

Eide sees this as part of a slow trend toward gender parity. Today, the editors of three of Norway’s largest newspapers — Aftenposten, Bergens Tidende, and Dagbladet — are women. Eide’s colleague Turid Øvrebø, who until recently worked at Volda University College, found that having women in leadership positions does not improve representation by itself, but it may be part of the solution if these leading women make a focus on gender part of the culture in their newsrooms.

“Permanent monitoring, permanent consciousness, and editorial staff who raise awareness are needed for gender representation to improve,” Eide concludes. More women in leadership positions, more research into the topic and societal pressure have begun to yield results. “I’m hopeful,” Eide tells us, “because I see positive changes.”

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Published: 13/11/2021
Last updated: 16/11/2021
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: LongJon / Shutterstock / NTB