Lean into this: Why the gap of women in media is critical to the planet

The diminutive presence of women in media is a global crisis, not just an American one, argues Weldon.

Women walk by Greek newspapers displayed
Women are not quoted as frequently as men in newspaper reports, TV or radio stories as sources, nor do they appear nearly as often on Sunday TV talk shows as guests [AFP]

The bad news is I will be 126 years old when women reach parity in government, politics, business and non-profit leadership in the United States, according to a distressing and depressing report that came out last week from the Women’s Media Centre. “The Status of Women in the US Media” states fairness will arrive in 2085 if we continue at this rate of change. 

More bad news is I will never see it. 

Add to that bitter pill the overwhelming data in this report supporting the notion that women may never reach parity in the American news media. Gains have been stagnant in print, digital and broadcast representation and employment of women for years. Though this is only the second year this report has been published, there have not been measurable gains across the board in that time – if at all. 

And as I will pass before I see the glory days of gender equity, my obituary likely won’t make the news; in six major newspapers, the study found obituaries of notable women accounted for an average of 23 percent of the subjects last year. While I am fairly certain death has no gender preference, that may be news to the Boston Globe, where last year only 19 percent of obituaries were about women compared to a high of 28 percent of women lauded post mortem in the Chicago Tribune.   

Even in the afterworld, the ladies don’t get a break. 

Women in media

With no growth in seven years for women counted by Fortune 500 as members of boards of directors, the status quo remains at 16.6 percent for women seated at those glossy tables. While Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, jumps to the top at No 8 in Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, her new book out mid-March, Lean In: Women, Work and The Will to Lead, has already come under fire and feminist attack for what some call its pie-in-the-sky, elitist notions of “we’re all in this together”.  

 ‘One billion rising’ campaign
against sexual violence

Sandberg’s release last week of her Lean In Foundation & Movement mission “to create a global community dedicated to encouraging women to lean into their ambitions” arrived in my inbox within hours of this 2013 Women’s Media Centre report.

Much media brouhaha has ensued about the highly successful Sandberg’s vision of shifting the power dynamic for all women through community outreach, education and smaller circles of women given an open-source agenda and urged to submit their happy stories of success. 

I say, why the heck not give Sandberg’s vision a try? As painstakingly delineated in the Women’s Media Centre report, the news is so bleak for women as represented in all media that this is akin to the global climate change crisis. True, gender inequity will not end the planet as we know it, as global warming will. It’s just that billions of its inhabitants may wish it would in order to start over with something a little more fair. 

This is our shrinking glacier: Women were not quoted as frequently as men in newspaper reports, TV or radio stories as sources, nor did they appear nearly as often on Sunday TV talk shows as guests. The gap is not small. And it totally matters because if you rarely see women as authority speaking, you wrongly believe that women have little to say. 

Between January and November 2012, in a study of 37 newspapers from the New York Times to the Traverse City Record Eagle in Michigan, women were quoted in 20 percent of all stories about the election.  

Throughout the year, women were used as sources in 18 percent of print stories in major newspapers and also on television, with a high of 23 percent of sources being women on National Public Radio. The lowest percentage of women used as sources was 11.9 percent at Fox News, with a high of 27.3 percent of sources being women at Time Warner. Women accounted for 25 percent of all guests on Sunday pundit shows, with only 14 percent of interview subjects on those shows being women. 

This explains why I am often screaming at the television, throwing down the newspaper, clicking out of a digital news site or raging at the radio. The voices and viewpoints of women are not heard because so few journalists ask them to speak. 

Perhaps that is because so few journalists in newsrooms are women. Though I have been teaching journalism at the Medill School of Northwestern University for 16 years with a gender breakdown of students at 70 percent women, the profession does not mimic those numbers. More women head into public relations agency, advertising agency, public relations department or advertising department work than daily newspaper, weekly, wire, radio or television journalism jobs. Maybe that is why on a list leaked last week of 44 journalists who sit on the Pulitzer Prize nominating committee, 28 are men and 16 are women. 

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors 2012 Newsroom Census, 34 percent of employees in supervising positions in newsrooms were women, the same percentage as in 1999. In TV news, 39.8 percent of the workforce at all stations is women, compared to 32.7 percent of those working at all radio stations. An organisation I belong to – Journalism & Women Symposium – lobbied to have women counted in the newsroom census in 1999.   

Byline disparity

None of this disparity is because there is a notable difference in news consumption; women are not oblivious to current events. A Newspaper Association of America 2012 study showed that 71.8 percent of men reported reading news daily along with 70.7 percent of women doing the same. 

Inside story
Can a quota system help close the gender gap?

I am quite familiar with the byline disparity of men and women as I am a leader with the OpEd Project, mentioned in this report, and I direct the Northwestern University Public Voices Fellowship. A five-year-old non-profit, the OpEd Project has a mission similar to Sandberg’s Lean In.

The goal is to increase the number of women and minority men seen and heard in public forums in order to change the world’s conversation and broaden the universe of ideas -whether by writing opinion, commenting on television and radio or participating at a much higher level and frequency across all platforms. 

The lack of women is not just in news media. Some claim the Oscars were watched globally Sunday by 1 billion viewers. The 81st Academy Awards featured more actresses than actors on the red carpet, but not nearly as many women behind the scenes. Only 9 percent of directors of the 250 top grossing films in 2012 were women, with documentaries having 39 percent female directors.

And though much has been made about HBO’s series, Girls, only 26 percent of creators of television shows were women, and 15 percent of television show directors in 2012 were women as well.      

Herein lies the insidious nature of the progress of women in our culture that does start with media. The person in the newsroom becomes the person in the media boardroom who becomes the person who decides who is quoted, who is featured, who is on the TV show who by having a profile as a public intellectual or thought leader becomes the person who is regarded in the larger world as an influencer. 

And if women are not in on the first wave, they will be passed over in every subsequent wave. If women are not seen in the movies and TV shows as characters of power and influence, then society does not view their presence in positions of power and influence as normal. 

So when Sheryl Sandberg ascends to an enormous position of media leadership, there seems a rationale to accuse her of being elitist because there are so few women doing the same thing, even if she is inviting every woman to the party with open arms.   

Personally, I find the catty snip-snipping at Sandberg’s heels to be counter-productive. She has come up with a formula aimed at solution. Whether or not this will make a real difference is uncertain. Still, in time for International Women’s Day on March 8, we can rally around the need for women to be fairly seen and heard and heed her call. 

Because this much is true: we can’t keep rolling along pretending the lack of fair female participation in scores of arenas is not a crisis. It is time to lean in and step up to participate and demand inclusion. 

As sure as the North Pole is melting, the diminutive presence of women in media is a global crisis, not just an American one. 

Michele Weldon is an author, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University and a leader with the OpEd Project.