16 Nov 2013 Media Development 2013/4 Editorial
It was in 1792 that the British writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Her book is a plea for gender equality at a time of political and social ferment the repercussions of which would last more than two centuries.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written against the background of the American and French Revolutions, and that of intellectual debates pursued by Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot and Rousseau.
Wollstonecraft had also read government minister Talleyrand’s report to the French National Assembly in 1791, which supported the notion of public education, but stated that women should only receive domestic training. She launched a broad riposte:
“Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate unless she know why she ought to be virtuous? unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good?”
Wollstonecraft was tackling a social injustice that is still prevalent today: gender stereotyping – preconceptions concerning the roles of women and men that for women result in discrimination and oppression. She took society to task for treating women in ways that were dismissive or belittling and which resulted in domination.
Stereotyping is an attempt to diminish human dignity, reinforcing prejudice and ignorance, and weakening those structures that offer protection in society. In a mass mediated society, stereotypes, especially about women and men, can easily become ingrained, ultimately contributing to repression and leading to violence.
Consequently, it is vital for social communications – mass, community, and social media – to represent people, no matter who they are or where they come from, in a more balanced and gender-sensitive way.
Moreover, it is important for those responsible for media content – including what has become known as user-generated content – to counter gender bias wherever it occurs.
As Claudia Florentín, a contributor to this issue of Media Development, points out:
“It is for all women and men to construct how they want the media to reflect society in general and women in particular. That is to say, to take account of histories, practices, discourses that allow women to be seen, to take them out of invisibilization, to give them the possibility of constructing reality according to their way of speaking and viewing, and not to carry on reproducing the discourse of the dominant powers and patriarchies that pervades cultures, economies and religions.”
Gender stereotypes are one of the most persistent causes of inequality between women and men in all spheres, impacting both their professional and private lives. Media content influences the way people perceive reality and contributes to shaping gender roles.
Yet, women (and sometimes men) are often poorly represented in the media. The findings of WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (2010) confirm that:
- Only 24% of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast, 76% – more than 3 out of 4 – of the people in the news are male.
- News continues to portray a world in which men outnumber women in almost all occupational categories, the highest disparity being in the professions.
- As persons interviewed or heard in the news, women remain lodged in the “ordinary” people categories, in contrast to men who continue to predominate in the “expert” categories.
- 18% of female news subjects are portrayed as victims in comparison to 8% of male subjects. In contrast, women are now twice as likely to be portrayed as survivors than men.
- 46% of stories reinforce gender stereotypes, almost eight times higher than stories that challenge such stereotypes (6%).
Steps are being taken towards remedying this situation and some governments are even getting behind action plans.
On 10 July 2013, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a “Recommendation on gender equality and media”. It forcefully stated that:
“Democracy and gender equality are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The inclusion of women and men, with respect for equal rights and opportunities, is an essential condition for democratic governance and sound decision-making. Gender equality means equal visibility, empowerment, responsibility and participation of both women and men in all spheres of public life, including the media… Gender equality is an integral part of human rights. Freedom of expression, as a fundamental right, goes hand-in-hand with gender equality.”
Mary Wollstonecraft would surely have applauded, but as articles in this issue demonstrate there is still a long way to go.