Feature Article

Gender and the Media: Enabling A Global Movement for Change

Alton Grizzle

Programme Specialist, Media Development and Society Section,

Communication and Information Sector, UNESCO


     “Sustainable development, human rights and peace can only be realized if women and men enjoy expanded and equal opportunities to live in freedom and dignity. Equality exists when women and men have equal access to quality education, resources and productive work in all domains and when they are able to share power and knowledge on this basis. Gender equality must be seen as both a practical necessity and an ethical requirement.”

— Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO

    “Men must teach each other that real men do not violate or oppress women – and that a woman’s place is not just in the home or the field, but in schools and offices and boardrooms.”

 — Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General


Several decades of research, 1970s, 80’s and 90s have yielded the same results – women are underrepresented in media staffing at all levels, including in decision making and in media content. This is fact.

The 1995 formative Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action offered hope when it highlighted these issues surrounding gender and media and called for action among all stakeholders. Despite promising interventions around the world, almost 20 years later research still shows that there are noticeable but slow changes in respect to women’s role in media and technology. What is being done correctly? What strategy has not worked? What actions are yet to be taken? Should the gender and media critical area of concern of the Beijing Declaration be viewed through new lens?

UNESCO offers bird’s eye view of a way forward.

In this pivotal year of Post 2015 Development Agenda and the 20 Year Review of the Beijing Declaration, there is an urgency to sound the trumpet of time for change – real change. There is an urgency to unlock women’s role in media and technology which is a secret weapon to accelerate the achievement of other gender equality development goals. The perennial narratives must delve into a renewed paradigm to consider factors such media as civil society, approaches to get better at promoting active citizenship, gender equality as a business model for media in 21 Century, and the collective role of the development community, including the United Nations.

An Anecdotal Illustration

I read of a popular anecdote concerning two men/friends who had an eye for the same woman. As the story goes, one outdid the other. I propose that in fact she chose one over the other. Both men went on to lead separate lives. The one whom she chose to get married went on to become the mayor of a very important city and other friend went into construction.

One day the Mayor and his wife was driving around the city to inspect major road construction that was being carried out and saw his past friend busy drilling away concrete on a side walk. He said to his wife, you should be glad that you got married to me or you would be with him – referring to the other friend. The woman replied, if I had married him, he would have been the mayor and not you.

The seemingly obvious moral behind this story is the frequently used statement that “behind every powerful man there is a powerful woman”. While this may be true and a statement to which most would agree, I suggest that it is quite stereotypical and archaic. Women are not behind men, they are equal to men. They are not just the mayor’s wife or the senator’s wife. They are mayors, senators, executives, Presidents and Prime Ministers themselves. Women and girls are as powerful as men and boys.

Women Empowerment and Media Development

There are arguably three waves of thinking about women and their empowerment since the 1900s into the 21st century. The first wave was that of women’s suffrage, a demand for the right to vote, 1845 to 1920. The second wave was that of social movements for women’s liberation, which advocated for a broad spectrum of social and cultural phenomena that hampered women’s freedom vis-à-vis that of men. These included issues such as images of women in advertising and media, unequal salaries and career opportunities. The third wave went beyond these issues of women to delve deeper into the question of gender roles of all people. Its concern is on how these roles can perpetuate inequality and constrain individual choice and expression.

As with the history of women, media have also evolved into what they are today, starting with the newspaper in the nineteenth century, radio in early 1900s, television, in the 1940s, and the explosion of new technologies in the 1990s. The development of media with respect to ownership, independence, pluralism and diversity can roughly be placed in four overlapping trajectories: Government controlled, private enterprises, pure public service models and community owned media. These four forms impact on levels of diversity in operation and content. [i]

There is a clear intersection between media development and women’s empowerment. Media were explicitly implicated in the second and third wave of women’s empowerment. Perhaps we need a fourth wave of how we think about women and their empowerment i.e. an era where more women and men – girls and boys combine efforts to promote gender equality in and through the media.

This is not to say that women should not advocate for themselves or that they should depend on men for activism. Rather, it is to say that women and men need to convert more men to activism for equality. The European Women’s Lobby Groups discussion on, “Engaging men for Gender Equality” is a step in the right direction. A UN Women initiative calls it “He for She”. The official website for this initiative notes, “Now it’s time to unify our efforts. HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all[ii]”.

A new movement for such solidarity approach is need in the media because empowering women in and through media can and will catalyze the process to achieve gender equality. It is a secret weapon to accelerate the achievement of all other gender equality development goals. It cuts across all dimensions of gender equality and should not be ignored or marginalized. Without the means to communicate it will be more difficult for women to advocate for their rights, augment their role in political leadership, and access quality education.

What has been done so far and what is missing?

More and more journalists are trained to report of gender equality issues. Attempts are made at training media executives. Research studies have become more common place and accessible. Media monitoring initiatives are cropping up everywhere though more are needed.

There are many conferences on gender and media. Hundreds of youth media projects exist but perhaps not enough girl-specific media projects. Social media with its apparent openness and inclusiveness – have led to exciting projects and opportunities giving personal expression and connectivity to women and enabling to share ideas and debate serious issues, thereby breaking down social privilege and engaging in public discourse about matters of interest to them, as well as actively creating and disseminating knowledge.

There are important pronouncements from government officials and officials of the United Nations.  All these are necessary and must continue.  

But missing are broad-based leadership from the media themselves on gender equality, the sort of activism from citizens that is more critical – cultural change some researchers call it - international development policies that treat media development as central to sustainable development and finally a combination of media internal regulations/policies, self-regulation, and government imposed regulations based on international standards particularly for public media. 

To achieve gender equality in the media requires that citizens all around the world treat gender equality as freedom of expressions for half the world’s population. Freedom of expression, by this I mean expression of all forms, and gender equality are just one huge orange cut in two. Advocacy for one in absence of the other slows advancement. It is like eating one side of the orange and hope that the nutrients received will be that of the whole orange.

Advocacy for freedom of expression and gender equality is of necessity advocacy for freedom of the press and open and free internet. There is no true gender equality without freedom of expression for women and men or real freedom of expression without gender equality.

The challenge faced by gender equality actors is that one is often blinded by the debate of media as business versus media as development.  That media are business is irrefutable.

That media are also indispensable to social development is still to be grasped by the masses. The Beijing Declaration recognized this fact in the critical area of concern J – Women and Media Diagnosis. Many experts including leaders like Amartya Sen sees the expansion of freedom both as the primary end and primary means of development.

He calls for “social development – enhanced literacy, accessible and affordable health care, the empowerment of women, and the free flow of information – as necessary precursors of the kind of development most economists are concerned about, namely: increase in gross national product, rise in personal incomes, industrialization, and technological advance.” [iii]

A harsh reality is that while I write this article about how gender equality in and through the media should be achieved, media development and freedom of expression have not received the deserved attention in the proposed Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

This leads to the second point of this article.

How can we get better at promoting active citizenship?

One solution to promote better active citizenship towards gender equality in and through the media and gender equality in general, which is implicit in the proposal that freedom of expression is gender equality, is that citizens should learn about media as an extension of civil society.  That is, the role of media to function[iv] as

  • channels through which citizens communicate
  • a watchdog of democracy
  • a platform to ensure diversity of voices
  • a national voice
  • a social actor

On one hand, as a social actor, the media is faced with the challenge to facilitate the free exchange of view and opinions in a society while at the same time avoid taking partisan views or stance on certain issues. On the other hand there is overwhelming evidence that media are not free from biases and often set the public discourse agenda. 

This is where the role of citizens becomes ever crucial. For one, citizens must become more active in holding the media accountable. In the context of gender equality, as mentioned earlier the importance of media monitoring, the seminal Global Media Monitoring Project on the coverage of women in the media and the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media have brought greater attention to this topic in recent times.

However, it is not sufficient to just monitor and report while citizens continue to consume the masculinistic and stereotypical representation of women and men in media. It is a vicious cycle, citizens demand certain content and the media keeps pushing that content and vice versa.

Citizens must realize that they have the power to stop watching, stop listening, stop reading, stop buying, stop sharing gender biased content from the media. Citizens must realize that they have the power over media of all forms. This is form of critical advocacy as mentioned earlier. We must change the culture of how we interact with media and other information providers. The UNESCO Massive Open Online Course on media and information for young girls and boys seek to address this challenge. Over 2, 000 youth from all over the world are now pursuing this two-month course with has gender equality and intercultural dialogue as central themes.

To be effective in holding media accountable, citizens need to acquire media and information literacy competencies. Media and information literate citizens are able to critically analyze information and media content, assess the potential risks and opportunities of information and media content online and offline and equally importantly to effective engage with media and other information providers for good governance, freedom and advocacy against all forms of inequalities.

Enlisting MIL as a tool for advancing gender equality opens up a flood of opportunities for pragmatic development programmes as well as academic research necessary to furnish the evidence needed to drive public policies and resources allocation. Effective gender-specific MIL programmes should:

  • Involve women/girls and men/boys
  • Look beyond just the media or the Internet and consider books, political and educational processes, interpersonal relations, religious beliefs and cultural practices
  • Consider the whole range of MIL competencies i.e. covering media, information and technology with a focus on critical thinking and critical engagement
  • Combine innovative and concrete empowerment projects with research
  • Facilitate national, regional and international networking to create an MIL and gender movement
  • Include both theory and practice
  • Be dovetailed with media self-regulation to mitigate the dangers of too much government regulation of media;
  • Be linked to policy debates and formulation concerning women and media as well as MIL[v]
  • Focus not only on the potential negative s of media technology and the flood of information that they bring but tipping the balance to focus more on the opportunities they provide to give impetus to gender equality.

Media and information literacy can empower people to take action on gender equality in the media as they come to realize that they have the power over media.  Advocates and experts or specialists of gender equality in and through the media must not be found guilty of focusing or talking only on the negative or stereotypical programming in the media. We will then do what we accuse the media of – always focusing on the negative. Here a few good stories

  1.  “CNN Freedom Project” In 2011 CNN has joined the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on the horrors of modern-day slavery, amplifying the voices of the victims, highlighting success stories and helping unravel the complicated tangle of criminal enterprises trading in human life[vi]
  2. “Leading Women (Be Your Own Leading Woman)” The project was founded by two successful women - Janet Walkow and Christine Jacobs. To help women of all ages to find and define themselves and their inner leader, The Leading Women Project explores these concepts, draws on its founders’ leadership experiences and those of many other women. By sharing stories and creating a guide to help define their values and goals, two founders help women of all ages achieve true self-awareness and confidence as they write their unique script for the lives they want to lead – so they can be their own leading woman. [vii]
  3. “Bloomberg African Women to Watch” This project is a celebration of a new generation of African women, which is trying to close the gender gap and to shape the continent’s political, social and economic landscape. [viii]
  4. I invite all readers of this article to share other positive portrayal of women in the media through the comments section of this website. Let us model and promote the non-stereotypical media that we want to see.

The role of governments and public media and media self-regulation

Public policies which do not threaten free independent and pluralistic media are necessary to achieve gender-equality in the media. In this context,   UNESCO launched a global survey of actions taken by governments to achieve gender equality in and through the media. This is shaping up to be another influential global report for the Beijing + 20 Review. All 195 Members and 10 Associate Members UNESCO have been consulted. The preliminary findings were presented during a side-event of the Commission for the Status of Women in March 2015.

The UNESCO’s Gender-Sensitive Indicators for Media is helping media to take leadership and ownership of the process – through independent internal policies.

Opportunity for the United Nations, bilateral development partners and private sector

The Media and Gender critical area of concern, Section J, of the Beijing Platform for Action has not received systematic global attention of the development community.

The groundbreaking Global Alliance on Media and Gender which was established through a partnership between UNESCO, UN WOMEN, WMO, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Government of Indonesia and many other partners offers much potential to give impetus to the gender and media objective of the Beijing Platform for Action.

All UN organizations, bilateral donors, and private sector partners are invited to commit to dialogue towards a Joint Development Cooperation Framework Meeting on Gender and Media from 7-8 December 2015 in Geneva. It will be followed by the first General Assembly of the GAMAG. Both event will coincide with the International Human Rights Day.



Other references:

[i] GSIM, p. 14

[ii] http://www.heforshe.org/ Accessed on 28 April 2015.

[iii] Sen, A. 1999. Democracy as a universal value. Journal of Democracy 10(3): 3-17.

[iv] unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0016/001631/163102e.pdf  Accessed on 28 April 2015.

[v] GAMAG Research Agenda, p. 103