Media Sexism Now Faces A Global Response

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I was excited to speak at UNESCO’s first Global Forum on Media and Gender in Bangkok this week. Excited because after decades of international research confirming the marginalisation and abuse of women in the media, the event, which gathered journalists, activists and academics form around the globe, promised action.

I was privileged to hear the stories of extraordinary women journalists reporting from the frontline of conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Africa. Women who risked everything to report on state corruption in eastern Europe and organised crime in Mexico. Women who said they returned to work determined to continue telling these stories in the public interest, even after being attacked, tortured and burying all of their friends.

There was the woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who asked participants how she should respond to this advice issued by her editors: “It is better to be a bad living journalist than a good dead one.”

The point of this advice was to discourage women journalists from becoming victims of gendered violence. We know that rape is used as a weapon of war. Rape and the threat of murder are also used as weapons designed to silence women journalists in many parts of the world.

Hassan Abdi Mohamed, the manager of Somalia’s KASMO Radio – a station for women, with content produced by women – told the forum that a Somali journalist who reported being raped was recently arrested with the photographer who documented her sexual assault and both were imprisoned. This was not an isolated incident.

Courageous women journalists who report the Arab world told a Doha Centre for Media Freedom seminar held during the UNESCO forum about being imprisoned and tortured by the security forces of despotic regimes because they refuse to discredit their own journalism. They spoke about the additional risk they face as female journalists – the threat of sexual violence.

These women, Jordan’s Rana al Husseini, Naziha Saeed from Bahrain, Baghdad based Jane Arraf and Egyptian Abeer Saady, moved me to tears as they spoke of the injuries, trauma and fear they have experienced in their determination to “speak truth to power” and bring stories to the world from under-reported, high-risk locations.

Clearly, gender equity and women’s empowerment in and through media remain issues of critical importance internationally. But Australian women journalists aren’t facing the daily threat of being tortured and raped for their work, we have it easy by comparison, so we should stop whining about sexism in the media, right? Wrong.

When I presented a case study on New Matilda’s Women in Media project to the UNESCO Forum in Bangkok on Wednesday, there were audible gasps from the audience in response to the images I showed demonstrating overtly sexist portrayals of Australia’s first Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s licensing of sexism in the media. I was asked by one participant from a developing country “How can it be that a rich democracy like Australia can still be so sexist?” Good question.

As Wendy Bacon reported yesterday, there is an abundance of research indicating that women journalists in Australia are still subjected to very high levels of sexual harassment and discrimination and blocked by the ‘glass ceiling’ within media organisations. Meantime, women are under-represented and subjected to sexist stereotyping in mainstream media reporting.

While we can celebrate the appearance of equality and progress generated by the female dominance of TV current affairs presentation in Australia, we should be lamenting the fact that the reporters of the stories featured on their programs and the editorial powerbrokers are overwhelmingly male. This imbalance may serve to entrench the impression of women as on screen "ornaments" whose sex appeal is critical to ratings. Remember John Westacott’s "Fuckability Index"? The problem it underscored is still alive and well in Australian journalism.

So, the research confirms we have a problem. The critical question now is: how do we bring about change?

That was the core focus of the UNESCO forum. The first step towards transformative action was taken on Wednesday when the forum voted overwhelmingly to establish a Global Alliance on Media and Gender, which committed to gender equality and women’s empowerment across generations with the stated desire of changing:

  • Access to and participation in digital media
  • Safety of women in media
  • Fair and balanced reporting of women across all media platforms and content
  • Promotion of ethical principles and policies supporting gender equality
  • Improvement of the gender spread in media employment
  • Empowerment of communicators with media and information literacy skills to help the cause of gender equality

Photo by Julie Posetti.

I’d suggest these practical steps as we work towards the goals above:

  • Journalists need to report on gender inequality in the media and its impacts. It’s time to abandon the ‘We don’t want to belly gaze’ excuse
  • Journalism education training in gender sensitivity – for both men and women
  • Public journalism projects on gender issues – like New Matilda’s Women in Media series – that partner journalism academics and students with media organisations to enable research-informed journalism designed to educate communities and impact on policy

Meantime, if you find all this unbearably depressing, go and have a look at the work of ABC News (US) correspondent turned media entrepreneur Lara Setrakian and be inspired. Setrakian runs a collaborative journalism website called Syria Deeply that covers Syria in innovative ways and is powered mostly by women.

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