More than a number: gender parity and the media

For International Women’s Day this year the call is to #pressforprogress.

With the World Economic Forum releasing information that gender parity is still over 200 years away and an intense global spotlight on women through #metoo and #timesup there is pause for thought on how this information and data can drive change. However, the broad nature of global movements means that it can be easy to disconnect and not always understand the impact in your local environment.

One of the International Women’s Day calls to action is to forge positive visibility of women by identifying ways to make them more visible and select them as spokespeople and leaders. I work in communications measurement and media research, and we deal with data about organisations, media strategies and consumer behaviour on a daily basis. Our work is built on the idea that media representation and public opinion can be understood and changed.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a desire for change from the clients that I work with and to produce research that should be a driver for change.

Some of the consistent findings across media in New Zealand are:

  • Significantly lower volumes of women presented as a subject matter expert or commentator.
  • Women are described as having earned their position or success more often than men.
  • Female success is often contextualised by male failure. (This is particularly true in coverage of athletes).
  • Women are not shown in a diversity of roles and are more likely to be positioned with their family, partners, coaches and other support people.

As a quick example, over the past 12 months 72 percent of all sources quoted in banking and financial coverage in New Zealand, were men. For the dairy industry, 82 percent were men. In the tertiary sector, which I thought would be a palate cleanser, only 33 percent of all sources were women.

As with anything involving communication, this is a two-way street with media. For some organisations, we specifically examine how often they position women for comment or are quoted in media releases and kits, and what the specific take-up of that is compared to men. 

So far, the data supports that a female spokesperson is more likely to be cut out of final copy. We have also found that there is a higher likelihood that journalists have a direct relationship with experts and commentators who are men. Women are more likely to have this relationship facilitated through a communications function or other support network.

Organisations are becoming more conscious of the impact that representation may have on their brand in the future.

In the context of ethical and values-based consumerism, where the expectation on brands is to match with personal beliefs and authenticity, gender can play an important role. It may contribute to reputation in unexpected ways, including being an employer of choice.  

While some of these findings are challenging, the increased interest from organisations to understand how the representation of women affects their brand, is a positive step.

We now have clients who are solely focused on improving their profile – not only by an increased presence of women – but openly celebrating gender diversity initiatives and how these initiatives are being reported on, and discussed online by potential employees or customers. 

If nothing else, I hope that this information allows for pause, and reflection on how we all contribute to the representation of women through our small choices, whether that be who is positioned to speak on a topic, or what language is used, and how much space is given.

Representation is important. How often we see women, and how they are framed helps to shape our expectations. We can’t change what we don’t understand or can’t see clearly.


Ngaire Crawford is head of insights for Isentia in New Zealand. 

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