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You've not come a long enough way, baby

The Council of Europe sees gender equality as a fundamental human right. But why is there not more of it about, asks Panos Kakaviatos.


Anticipating a Council of Europe conference on the image of women and gender equality in the media last month, I felt sceptical. Hasn’t the era of “the weather girl” given way to women taking leading positions in both old and new media?
Take Christiane Amanpour on CNN or Maybrit Illner on German public television. Ranked number 14 on the list of America's most powerful businesswomen of 2012 by Fortune magazine, Marissa Ann Mayer is president and CEO of Yahoo! after having been spokeswoman for Google. But, as I learned from the Council of Europe conference – Media and the Image of Women – the short answer is (still) no.
Revealing statistics
Media professionals and other participants at the conference, from Morocco to the UK, took in revealing statistics. Take for example a study of 500 companies in nearly 60 countries which revealed that men occupy the “vast majority” of the management jobs and news-gathering positions in most of the countries covered. Commissioned by the International Women's Media Foundation, the study found that men occupy 73 per cent of top management jobs, compared to 27 per cent occupied by women. Among reporters, men hold nearly two-thirds of the jobs, compared to 36 per cent by women.
At the conference, Helen Issler, one of the first women news anchors on Swiss television, gave an excellent power point presentation illustrating stereotypes and women’s under-representation in media leadership positions. I also learned from Issler that Swiss women did not obtain the legal right to vote in federal elections until… 1971.
new challenges
While the advent of social media looks promising for gender equality, new challenges arise.Conference participant Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, has compiled an ever-increasing catalogue of women’s experiences of sexism on a daily basis, with stories coming from women of all ages, races and sexual orientations. The project is internationally renowned, featured in media from the The New York Times and CNN to Cosmopolitan magazine and The Times of India.
Bates describes – in this widely published video – her successful campaign earlier this year asking Facebook to remove blatantly sexist content. You would think that the country hosting the conference, The Netherlands, is a “land of milk and honey” for gender equality, said conference participant Petra Stienen, an author and media consultant, who won the “Women in the Media Award 2011” for her reporting on the Arab Spring. But even in The Netherlands, 80 per cent of people interviewed for their expertise on television talk shows are men, Stienen stressed. 
Some progress
This is not to say that we haven’t made progress. In her keynote speech to the conference, Suzanne Moll, one of Denmark’s most highly respected media professionals, stressed that female managers in that Scandinavian country were “few and far between” about 25 years ago. The tide changed in the 1990s: “I was fortunate to work in a company with an explicit wish to recruit women as managers” she said. “As a result, the gender ratio at the managerial level in Denmark is 60/40, which was the goal.”
Difficult work hours, late deadlines and being constantly on call turn many talented women away from journalism, especially when they start having children, Moll explained. But ways can be found around that, such as workable leaves of absence. Moll’s assessment reminded me of when the Associated Press hired me to replace a woman on maternity leave some 10 years ago in Germany. Her absence enabled me to report for a top international news agency and thus obtain invaluable news gathering experience.
Our career paths changed. Melissa Eddy not only returned to her job, but – several years later – the International Herald Tribune hired her. Last year, the Council of Europe invited Melissa to moderate an important debate at its World Forum for Democracy.
Raising awareness
Despite such progress, much work remains: raising awareness is one thing, taking practical action is quite another.
Days after the conference, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers passed a recommendation calling on governments to adopt measures to promote gender equality in the media. Media regulators are asked to respect gender in decision making and practice. Member states are urged to support “awareness-raising initiatives” to eliminate stereotypes. And media organizations must adopt “self-regulatory measures, internal codes of conduct/ethics and internal supervision, and develop standards in media coverage that promote gender equality,” according to the recommendation.
To ensure that such measures are carried out across the Council of Europe’s 47 member states, the recommendation includes a review and evaluation of gender equality policy and legislation, plus “regular monitoring and evaluation” of gender equality in the media.
For the Council of Europe, gender equality is a human right as fundamental as freedom of the press. This notion should not be interpreted as institutional verbiage, or an attempt to engineer unrealistic sameness between men and women, but rather as much needed “common” sense. To end with an obvious statement: If half of the media’s audience is female, shouldn’t more women manage the media?

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06 August 2013

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