Media, Entertainment and Sport

Just 24% of news sources are women. Here’s why that's a problem

In 2015 that figure rose to just 24%

Sarah Macharia
Programme Manager, The World Association for Christian Communication (WACC)
Marcus Burke
Research Analyst, Media, Entertainment and Sport, World Economic Forum
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Media, Entertainment and Sport

  • In 2015, research suggests just 24% of news sources (people seen, heard or read about in the media) were women;
  • Additionally, the news topics where women are most visible garner the least coverage;
  • More equality between men and women's voices in news leads to a more representative media, better journalism and greater trust from the audience.

In 1995, just 17% of news sources — people seen, heard or read about in print and broadcast news media across 71 countries — were female, according to research by the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP).

Twenty years later in 2015, the year of GMMP’s most recent study, that figure was only slightly higher: 24% of 45,402 people interviewed or as subjects in 22,136 stories from 114 countries were women.

Have you read?

The needle towards parity has moved by just 7 percentage points in 20 years and increased only 3 percentage points since 2005. If the news were truly a mirror of the world, we would expect to see at least an equal gender share of voices in content. At this rate, it will take at least three-quarters of a century to reach numerical gender parity.

Gender inequality in the news 1995-2015
Who are the 24%?

The data suggests that when women are present in the news they appear primarily as sources based on their personal experience or as popular opinion providers and eyewitnesses to events. When you consider subject matter experts as sources, as of 2015, women represent just 19% and this proportion has remained relatively unchanged across 10 years of media monitoring.

Table 1. GMMP 2015. Typology of news subjects and sources by sex
Typology of news subjects and sources by sex Image: GMMP, 2015

When you measure women's representation by major news topics, you find that the news topics in which they are reported most frequently are the topics that have the lowest levels of female representation.

The news topics where women are most visible garner the least coverage. For example, across the 10 years from 2005 to 2015, the gender gap was narrowest in stories on science and health, yet this topic occupied only 8% of the overall news space. The gender gap was widest in news about politics and government, a topic that occupies the largest share of news space at just over 25%.

Figure 2: GMMP 2005-2015. Major topics (% space in the news as compared with women's representation)
Major topics (% space in the news as compared with women's representation) Image: GMMP, 2005-2015

In 2015, women were most visible in news on science and health, and least present in political and economic news, topics that command greater broadcast airtime and print news space.

Table 2. GMMP 2015. Ratio of women to men featured in the news by major news topic.
Ratio of women to men featured in the news by major news topic Image: GMMP, 2015
Obstacles limiting the inclusion of women as sources

There are a variety of reasons why female experts aren’t sourced in news stories as often as men. Both journalists and women experts themselves face challenges. For journalists, unconscious bias, tight deadlines, industries with a lack of women in leadership to serve as sources and cultural challenges affect their ability to identify women experts. For women, corporate policies that determine who speaks to the media, a lack of media training for women and a higher probability of online harassment limit their opportunities to speak with journalists.

Here’s why it matters:

  • It’s good journalism: when an entire group of people is underrepresented in the daily narratives that describe our world, we have an incomplete or inaccurate depiction of our reality. When reporters fail to speak to women experts and leaders, they risk leaving out perspectives relevant to a huge portion of society and miss out on new and interesting stories that otherwise may not surface.
  • It builds trust: audience trust has become a critical concern for the news industry with media now considered the least trusted institution globally. An enduring lack of diversity and representation in media contributes to this, as, around the world, media are continually shown to exclude or misrepresent marginalized and minority groups. This means many people do not receive information relevant to their experience and circumstances, causing disengagement and distrust.
  • It’s good business: increasingly, media managers see gender equality as essential, not only to the quality of their work but, by extension, to the financial viability of their businesses. Increasing the voice of women leaders and experts in the news can build greater trust among the audience and improve the quality of journalism. It can also increase a newsroom’s audience engagement, subscription base, and value among advertisers. In the business world, mounting research suggests a correlation between gender equality and diversity and a company’s financial performance.
  • It’s good for society: when women’s expert and authoritative voices are accurately reflected and harmful gender stereotypes left behind, we all benefit. Girls – and boys – grow up in a world where they learn they can participate equally. Gender bias in schools, workplaces and communities are diminished.
What can businesses do?

It is not the sole responsibility of journalists and newsrooms to increase the voice of women in the news; the business world must also do its part. Jo Sheldon, Executive Director at Edelman, explains what companies need to do:

1. Consider expert sources other than the CEO: media organizations can often be very hierarchical in their requests for spokespeople. There are more men called Steve and David leading UK FTSE 100 listed companies than women and ethnic minorities combined and only 33 of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. By asking to speak to the CEO, you are, at the outset, eliminating a lot of female voices. Edelman’s Trust Barometer data shows that peers (a person like myself) and experts (particularly technical or academic experts) are the most trusted sources of information too, far outstripping the CEO.

2. Make your intentions known: communications teams are generally gatekeepers of all media appearances. Once they understand that fielding a female spokesperson can materially alter their chances of coverage, it will yield results.

3. Identify qualified female sources: journalists, conscious of wanting to incorporate more women’s voices, may ask explicitly if there are women that can speak to certain expertise. Identifying a particular person ahead of time, rather than merely asking for “a woman” is likely to yield better results.

4. Host an open house: some media organizations are starting to open their doors to organizations. I know from speaking to our clients that these events are very welcome particularly when it comes to broadcast interviews. Understanding the layout, the format and how these interviews work ahead of time goes a long way to building confidence among potential sources.

To learn more about increasing women as sources in the news media, visit Reflect Reality, a resource and toolkit for newsrooms, journalists and business professionals to achieve this goal.

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Media, Entertainment and SportGender Inequality
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