Addressing gender issues in media content
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Addressing gender issues in media content

Photo: Loren Joseph on Unsplash

In 1995, Governments participating in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing reached consensus on specific strategic objectives and related actions to advance equality, development and peace for all women. One objective – to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media” (Section J on “women and the media”, Beijing Platform for Action, 2015) – listed several actions, inter alia, promoting research and implementing an information, education and communication strategy, encouraging the media to refrain from exploitation, sexualisation and commodification of women, and promoting the idea that sexist stereotypes in media are gender discriminatory, degrading and offensive.

Eight years later in 2003, the Commission on the Status of Women recognized “the potential of the media and of information and communication technologies to contribute to the advancement and empowerment of women” (Agreed conclusions CSW47, 2003). The CSW proposed 24 actions for Governments, the UN system, international financial institutions, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders. The Commission underlined the need to prioritize gender perspectives in ICT and media policy and regulations, to support research, education and training, to strengthen inter-stakeholder partnerships, to tackle media-based violence against women and to allocate adequate resources. 

The recommendations and commitments reappear in various global, regional and national gender equality and women’s rights frameworks adopted over time (see Table 1).

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals “seek to realize the human rights of all and achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls (Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,  UN General Assembly, 2015). The role of media in advancing gender equality is mentioned specifically in the Post-2015 development blueprint under Goal 5 on enhancing the use of “information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women”. 

At the same time, it is clear that media are implicated in the achievement of gender equality aspirations in all the 17 SDGs, in as far as their role in maintaining social and cultural norms underpinning discrimination and inequality across all thematic areas is concerned. For instance, how could removal of social barriers to the empowerment of girls and women (Agenda 2030 Declaration, para 8), or eliminating gender violence (para 20) be possible if media content that channels negative gender stereotypes, belittle, degrade and sexualize women, and normalize gender violence, are not addressed? Media output that clearly challenges gender stereotypes provides the exposure needed to eliminate the prejudices, attitudes, norms and practices that sustain gender-based discrimination, marginalization and inequality. 

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) recognizes the role of stereotypes in “giv[ing] rise to the multitude of legal, political and economic constraints on the advancement of women (Introduction, CEDAW, UN General Assembly, 1979). Article 5 of the Convention obliges States parties to take measures to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for women and men”. Combatting sexist stereotypes in the media is a necessary part of the process.

The evidence
While State media regulators, media industry bodies and media organizations have to varying extents made efforts to translate the global, regional and national commitments into implementable policies, codes and guidelines for the media, the results remain uninspiring. The evidence below is confined to the news media due to the availability of a volume of data gathered over time and across multiple nation states. 

Results from Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) 20-year research on gender in news media content reveal that the rate of progress towards media gender parity has been very slow.

News is a genre governed by professional codes and can be held to a higher standard than fictional media. The critique, however, cuts across all media forms that are just as and oftentimes more complicit in the sexualisation, trivialization and objectification of women, as well as the normalization of violence against girls and women.

The research evidence suggests that more than two decades since Beijing, gender issues in media content remain pertinent. The power to change lies with governments, the media and ordinary audiences.

Governments need to acknowledge the important place of media and communication within the broader objective of promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment. Professional media in particular have a fundamental obligation, following industry ethics, to present balanced, fair and accurate content. Media organizations need to be accountable to the societies in which they operate and the audiences they serve.

Gender equality is embraced as a global goal and media have a significant role in promoting or in sabotaging its achievement. Weak and inconsistent implementation of gender policies needs to be addressed. Institutionalization of a gender-sensitive journalistic culture remains paramount.

The following recommendations are minimal requirements.

State media regulatory agencies

1. Require media houses to adopt and enforce a gender policy and guidelines for gender-sensitive reporting; 

2. Include, in media evaluation criteria, issues of gender balance and demonstrated adherence to the gender policy;

3. Impose meaningful fines on media houses found liable for sex discrimination, sexist content or other actions of non-compliance with the gender policy; and,

4. Build capacity of staff responsible for hearing cases on media non-compliance with the gender policy.


1. Develop a gender policy and gender aware ethics and practice codes, with action plans and targets for implementation; 

2. Engage with community media organisations and citizens’ media networks to advance gender equality in content production; 

Civil society

1. Advocate for fair and equal representation of women and men in news media. Lobby for gender policy adoption and implementation for and by media. 

2. Establish gender-focussed media watch and apply the results as evidence for public and media awareness, for actions to hold media accountable through State, industry and media house complaints mechanisms, and to support media houses committed to gender equality.

Funding agencies 

1. Support the strengthening or establishment of media watch networks. 

2. Support media development work that emphasizes gender equality in content production, media in-house policies and practices

Source: Who makes the news? 2015. 




African Union, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, 11 July 2003Council of Europe, The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence , November 2014

Organization of American States (OAS), Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Convention of Belem do Para”), 9 June 1994

UN Commission on the Status of Women, Participation in and access of women to the media, and information and communication technologies and their impact on and use as an instrument for the advancement and empowerment of women, Agreed Conclusions. March, 2003

UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 18 December 1979, A/RES/34/180,

UN General Assembly, Transforming our world : the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 21 October 2015, A/RES/70/1 

United Nations, Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, 27 October 1995

World Association for Christian Communication, Who makes the news? Global media monitoring project (GMMP), 1995-2015

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