A week before I graduated from college in 2002, my adviser called me into his office for a “welcome to the real world” chat.
“I know you want to be a writer, but I want to give you a dose of reality first,” he said. He pulled open a drawer jammed with rejection letters. “I don’t want to discourage you, but this industry is tough. Don’t take rejection personally – just keep writing.”
And so I have. But what happens when the media industry isn’t rejecting my work, it’s rejecting my gender? The fact of the matter is that women still don’t start on an equal playing field in the media.
Sure, we’ve made great strides – we’ve got Rachel Maddow and Katie Couric and Oprah. But our work for gender equality in the media is far from over. It’s as important as ever to tie the media reform movement to the advancement of women.
Where are the women?
In early April, National Public Radio’s ombudswoman, Alicia Shepard, released the results of her own gender survey in a blog post titled, “Where are the women?” She found that although the radio network is an industry leader when it comes to female hosts and correspondents, it doesn’t have the same record for female commentators and news sources. On NPR’s 104 shows between April 13, 2009 and Jan. 9, 2010, just 26 percent of the sources were women.
To be clear, NPR isn’t the only news organization with shameful stats. A recent report from the Global Media Monitoring Project found that worldwide, women make up only 24 percent of the people “interviewed, heard, seen or read about in mainstream broadcast and print news.” And an article in Newsweek in March headlined “Are We There Yet?” outlines the longstanding and troubling gender bias in the industry, where “female bylines at major magazines are still outnumbered by seven to one.”
In her blog post, Shepard said NPR has plans to improve, but also rationalized the network’s behavior:
Admittedly, the relative lack of female voices reflects the broader world. The fact remains that even in the fifth decade after the feminist revolution; men are still largely in charge in government at all levels, in corporations and nearly all other aspects of society. That means, by default, there are going to be more male than female news sources.
This oft-repeated justification begs the chicken-and-the-egg question: Are female voices less prominent in the media because they hold fewer positions of power and authority, or are women holding less positions of power and leadership because they’re not given an equal platform in the media? Today, just like decades ago, women have to overcome negative and sexualized images in the media to obtain high-ranking political positions.
It’s still a man’s world
It is also rare to see women at the helm of media institutions. A 2007 study by Free Press, the organization I work for, found that while women comprised 51 percent of the U.S. population, they owned less than 6 percent of television stations and 8 percent of all full-power commercial broadcast radio stations. Again, we’re back to the chicken or the egg.
These alarming statistics mean that mostly men are deciding how to represent and portray a majority of our population in the media. Their choices often end up degrading, stereotyping or ignoring women. Even throwaway headlines like CNN’s “Women Blamed in Moscow Suicide Blasts” are damaging to women, and point to both a strange fascination with and objectification of the gender in the media. As a writer on the blog Femonomics wrote, “To see how backwards this headline is, imagine the consummately uninformative “Men blamed for 9⁄11.”
I’m not saying that CNN’s newsroom editors maniacally set out to hurt women with that headline, or that it was particularly egregious. In fact, the editors probably didn’t give it a second thought – and that’s where the problem lies. Gender bias is so rooted in our culture, and so subtle, that we can barely recognize it. And if we can’t recognize it, we can’t condemn it.
High stakes for gender equality
Even as women struggle now to break into the media industry as journalists and commentators, or to find media they can relate to as female consumers, the situation could get worse.
This year, we’re watching one of the biggest media mergers in history, as Comcast prepares to takeover NBC. Comcast has already sheepishly confessed to having only one woman on its board of directors – that’s just one woman helping to direct one of the most massive media empires in the country.
And because of a recent federal court ruling in favor of, again, Comcast, the future of the Internet as we’ve known it – a force that has leveled the playing field for women and allowed us to be our own voice and establish healthy images – is also in jeopardy.
So the stakes are now even higher: Women must get involved and fight for a better media system. Taking the media into our hands means claiming our power as women, and taking ownership over our viewpoints. And for you men reading this: Joining this movement means you won’t stand aside while the women in your lives are routinely maligned by the media.
After all, a more consolidated media system and a corporate-controlled Internet will only serve to deepen the entrenched sexism and gender bias that is so damaging to women and our collective consciousness.