Report by Eleanor Mills, Kate Hind, Aine Quinn
Researchers: Megan Baynes, Caitlin Doherty, Jessica Frank-Keyes, Emily Hawkins, Sara Lovejoy and Evie Prichard
The media is the mirror that society holds up to itself. It is through newspapers – whether in print or on screen – that the first draft of history is created and power is held to account.
At Women in Journalism, we believe that democracy can only flourish when the mirror the media holds up to society provides a true reflection; we argue today that because of the lack of diversity in British newspapers the lens we hold up to society is a distorted one. Society sees itself not as it is, but through the prism of a predominantly old, white, male gaze.
This puts half the population at a disadvantage – and, at its worst, can put women off entering public life.
Particularly egregious examples of this distorting lens include “Leg-sit” – how the Daily Mail described the meeting of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, the two most powerful political leaders in the country on March 26, 2017. Or how David Cameron’s decision to appoint more women to his cabinet on July 16, 2014, was treated as an excuse to picture the new female ministers on a ‘Downing Street Catwalk’ where their outfits were critiqued. Both examples reinforce to the public that no matter how powerful a woman is, or how impressive her credentials are for doing a job, it is her appearance that matters more than anything.
This distortion is damaging to the way women feel about themselves and puts many of them off entering public life. In a less obvious way, the terminology around men and women is often indicative of a double standard: the title of our research, The Tycoon and the Escort, refers to the descriptions used in the coverage of the murder by a businessman of his lover, for which he received a life sentence in 2016. The Tycoon and the Escort exemplifies the kind of loaded language which often reveals the bias of the male media lens where men are millionaires and business tycoons while women – even powerful ones – are judged by a hotness quotient or ‘would-ya?’ yardstick on their arm-candy factor. That is the male lens in action. It could easily have been the Failing Businessman and the Entrepreneur. As we know in papers, words matter.
It has long been argued that time and increasing numbers of women in the media and public life will fix our long-established ‘women problem’; that as more women reach the top of the profession, the male lens will vanish. But as the campaigners for more women on FTSE 100 boards have discovered, the pace of change is glacial; on current progress it will take 100 years to reach parity between men and women in business. Our new research suggests the same is true of journalism. In November and December 2016 and June and July 2017 we have staged a re-run of research WIJ carried out in 2012 into how many front page stories are being written by women. We wanted to find out if women were getting the chance not just to write about typically female subjects – lifestyle, fashion, culture – but were shaping the “hard news” which we see on coffee tables and garage forecourts across Britain.
We discovered that once again progress is slow or non-existent. True, there are more female bylines on the front pages than there were five years ago, but only by a couple of percentage points. At three publications the numbers have actually gone backwards. And George Osborne’s Evening Standard is one of the worst offenders.
The Daily Mirror had the lowest count of female front page bylines in June-July 2017, with only 10% of stories written by women. This was followed by the Evening Standard and The Sun, both with 15% of front page stories written by women, and the Daily Express with 16%.
Across the print press, the average percentage of front page stories written by women in June-July 2017 was 25%, just 2 percentage points above the average in 2012.
So why are so few women writing those all-important front page stories? Part of the reason is the dearth of women in certain parts of the newsroom. For instance, politics is often the source of the ‘splash’ (the main story on the front page). But the Guardian is the only newspaper which currently has a female political editor (actually it has two, as they job-share). Therefore if politics is the lead story, in most cases it won’t have a female byline.
We wanted to dig more into this bias and find out where the women are in newspapers. So, as a companion piece to repeating our count of female bylines, this year we have also asked the major media companies to disclose for the first time where exactly the women are on their staff. We can see for the first time which organisations have women calling the shots. (The replies from all the papers that responded are included in the appendix at the back of the report). But the quick answer is that only one broadsheet is edited by a woman (the Guardian). Across all papers, the backbench – which decides where stories are placed and how they are presented – is an almost entirely male preserve. The business, politics and sport sections are still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
Now that the world is so digital, do newspapers still matter? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Newspapers still make the weather; their investigations, comment, and spin on the news still set the agenda. Front pages in particular still have a huge influence, as they often set the agenda for TV and radio news bulletins, and on social media. The #TomorrowsPapersToday hashtag, run by BBC staff, has a huge Twitter following – meaning it shapes the conversation online, and feeds back into other commissioning decisions. Therefore, even in a digital age, the contents of the newspaper front pages is still an important benchmark of industry attitudes.
Women in Journalism is a professional body for females working in newspapers (and increasingly from other media too). Our primary purpose therefore is to look at what is happening with women. Since we are half the population, any diversity discussion should start there. That does not mean that we are not also aware of the predominantly white, middle class, southern bias which also afflicts newspapers and which Ofcom has rightly criticised. We applaud those measures. However, we believe there is a particular problem with gender representation, tied to issues such as hiring bias, assumptions of female interests and aptitudes, sexual harassment or unwelcoming newsroom cultures, and the material conditions of women’s lives, such as pregnancy, maternity leave and unpaid caring responsibilities. There is also an issue with the gender pay gap, which potentially puts puts women off working in newspapers, or deters them from returning to work after having children, as financially it isn’t worth it. We hope this report provides a starting-point, and perhaps even a model, for looking at wider issues of diversity.
Read the report in PDF: