Where are the women in newspapers? Nestled in a sidebar of shame, “flaunting their curves” perhaps, or splashed over the front page, “scantily clad”, portrayed as victims or arm candy, maybe. When women are involved, even crucial political development is not immune to being watered down to little more than cheap puns laden with sexual innuendo – we’re looking at you, “Legs-it”. The media has long had an image problem with women – and, as a new report clearly shows, it’s one that starts right from the heart of newspapers themselves.
New research from Women in Journalism – a networking, campaigning, training and social organisation supporting women across written media – is putting a spotlight on the lack of powerful female voices in the written press, in a bid to improve equality in the media. Currently, they say, what we see in British newspapers is a view all too often filtered from the gaze of a load of old, white men. And they’ve got the stats to back it up.
Women accounted for just 25 per cent of front-page bylines in a sample taken across the spectrum of newspapers from June 5 to July 23 this year, the body found, with some newspapers performing spectacularly worse than others. The Daily Mirror came out with the lowest count of female voices – 10 per cent of stories that made the front page were written by women – and men wrote 85 per cent of the Evening Standard’s front-page reports. More encouragingly, The Guardian’s split was 43 per cent women.
We know it’s not just about women – that's just the tip of the iceberg. The media and newspapers are hideously white
Why does it matter? While there’s an obvious inequality present, it does have far-reaching effects on the population, says Women in Journalism chair and editorial director of The Sunday Times Eleanor Mills. “The repercussions of having a lack of female voices is that you don’t get to hear about what women think might be interesting,” she explains.
“There can be a real split between the kind of things that women are interested in and what men are interested in. And I know from years of being an executive on The Sunday Times that you can see a news list where the only stories which have anything to do with women in them are depicting women as victims – someone who has been raped, or subjected to other violence against women and girls – or a woman who has divorced a rich man, or who is some kind of arm candy.”
Often, Mills says, “if a woman does get a front-page story, it’s tends to be about health or showbusiness or royals” – topics perhaps seen by editors as stereotypically female, while men are more often trusted by desks to cover the more “weighty” or serious stories. “It sends out the message that women aren’t up to doing the big story or being trusted with the important gigs; that they’re still left for the boys.
“The reason we looked at the front pages is because I think they are still very, very important as a first draft of history, and to show what we thought was important on the day,” Mills continues.
“A female journalist, Katie Hind, was down reporting on the Grenfell fire. She was really interested in a lot of the survivors’ tales of what had happened to the families. She said that she was the only female news reporter down there, and other journalists were asking ‘Why are you talking to them?’”
And it’s not just a women problem per se. There is a huge lack in the media of BAME voices, and especially female BAME voices, which hasn’t been overlooked by Women in Journalism. Mills added: “We know it’s not just about women – that's just the tip of the iceberg. The media and newspapers are hideously white, to use a term that was used about the BBC. We’re hoping that by first tackling this first issue – of making sure women are equally visible in the press, and have equal power behind the scenes – that then we can better tackle the disparities in diversity [of race and ethnicity] and of social class.”
Mills is optimistic that change is imminent – since Women in Journalism conducted its last round of research, in 2012, there has been a marginal improvement. But, at two per cent, it really is marginal. By shedding light on and questioning how women are portrayed in the media, and where they are on the spectrum of power driving the print press (overall they found that 66 per cent of senior roles in newspapers are held by men, with publications like the Daily Mirror having just 13 per cent female senior staff), they hope to force newspapers to question and correct their own conduct.
“The media is the mirror that society holds up to itself,” Mills says. And right now, women – and their stories and voices – aren’t adequately or rightfully reflected. There have been improvements in broadcast journalism, she adds, over the last five years, but points out that in newspapers it’s “kind of more invisible", and they are less subject to parliamentary scrutiny. “And so we want to put pressure on them,” she says, “and say, loudly, that it matters.”