For many people, popular culture and the media is the first indication that maybe, just maybe, we don’t have women’s equality yet. The women we see on screen and in print are often stereotyped or tokenistic, or we don’t see them at all. And of course the situation is worse for older women, women of colour, disabled women, lesbian and trans women. One thing women across Scotland have told Engender is that the media, both in print and on screen, can play a huge role in perpetuating women’s inequality.
While this is not necessarily surprising, when we look at who is responsible for the creation of the media - in 2013, only 5% of editorial positions and 0% of political editorial positions in daily newspapers were held by women across the UK – but it is incredibly damaging. Without quality reporting on gender issues, awareness of women’s inequality can’t be raised, and the gendered nature of many stories is missed.
Of course, many media outlets are recognising this and some are better than others (the National being a notable example of a paper which clearly values reporting on stories concerning women), but the norm remains subordinate representation of women in the media. Sexualised imagery of women and girls across media platforms is so commonplace and widely accepted that it generally fails to resonate as an equality issue. Objectification of women’s bodies shapes how women are valued, reinforces sexist attitudes and has negative impacts on body image, self-worth and health, as does disparaging reporting of women professionals and, indeed, lack of coverage of any issues reflecting women’s lives.
There are lots of individual campaigns and projects working to tackle the problem of sexism in the media. The No More Page 3 campaign has done great work at highlighting the misogyny displayed every day in a national newspaper, Women for Independence’s Mediawatch called out the lack of women on political shows, and the Write to End Violence Against Women awards – supported by Engender and the National – can be credited with raising awareness of the responsibility involved in reporting on violence against women.
And there are frequent outbursts of indignation when the media does something outrageously sexist - Nicola Sturgeon photoshopped in a tartan bikini, lewd sexualisation of teenage girls in the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’, and the shameful images used to report Reeva Steenkamp’s murder – but these extreme can mask the persistent problem of ‘everyday sexism’ in the press.
We need action to create a media which represents women equally and accurately, rather than reinforcing the sexism and misogyny women in Scotland face every day.
This week, Engender and Zero Tolerance, a charity working to tackle the causes of men's violence against women, held a roundtable discussion with representatives from Scotland’s media to talk about women in the media. This included talking about the lack of representation of women behind the scenes in the media, the way women’s issues are reported in the news, and how female journalists can be protected from online abuse. The meeting was, we hope, the start of a broader process to find positive solutions to the problem of sexism in the media.
With the Scottish Parliament elections on the horizon, now is a fantastic time to be talking about this. The SNP, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Green Party all have woman leaders, and it’s vital for our democratic processes that media coverage of the election focuses on views, not shoes. Last year, a new study on global media found that women feature in just 16 per cent of political reporting, and just 7 per cent of political stories in newspaper, radio shows and on television have women as their central focus – a number which hasn’t shifted in 15 years.
Beyond the news media, we know that cultural outputs worldwide still see huge underrepresentation of women. Of the directors of top-grossing films, only 7% are women, there are frequent high-profile examples of female actors being offered a lower salary than their male co-stars, and the excitement over the Man Booker Prize’s gender-balanced shortlist this year shows what a rare occurrence it is. Although there are great initiatives working to challenge women’s equality in these areas, with the Glasgow Women’s Library being an example of an organisation working on verbal and literary arts, there is a general lack of the capacity and expertise needed to make change happen.
Women’s inequality in the media and culture is not an issues which will go away, or solve itself. Twenty years ago, the Beijing Platform for Action on Women identified the media as a key are where progress was needed. And not much progress has been made.
Engender wants to see a ‘Women in Media’ body created in Scotland. Not a regulator, but an initiative that would monitor and challenge women’s underrepresentation, stereotyping and sexualisation in the media, but also think creatively about how change will be made. We also want the public bodies with a stake in Scotland’s media and creative sectors to improve women’s professional and artistic representation across the arts.
It would be too easy to call out sexism in the media without understanding the huge pressures faced across the sector, with 24 hour news and funding issues meaning that many media outlets currently don’t have the knowledge and skills to ensure that reporting around women is nuanced and fair. The actions we are calling for would not be simply to criticise the media from afar, but to work with them, supporting and challenging them to make sure Scotland’s media truly reflects Scotland’s population.
Feminism on Film: Engender joins with Take One Action Film Festival Films can be an amazing way to explore new ideas, understand complex issues, and celebrate change. And documentary film is a particularly good medium for discussion, as anyone who's overheard conversations about Fyre Festival, R Kelly or Apollo 11 this year will know.
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