Women’s voices: are we doing as well as we think?

The media reflects society and when women are left out of news stories, it becomes easy for other power bases to overlook them too

28 August 2022 - 19:20 By Kathleen Magrobi
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now
Quote This Woman+ director Kathleen Magrobi.
ASKING QUESTIONS Quote This Woman+ director Kathleen Magrobi.
Image: Supplied

A few weeks ago, Quote This Woman+ (QW+) had a call from Lester Kiewit’s radio show, The Morning Review on Cape Talk. Would we be interested in joining Lester for just under an hour on Women’s Day to talk about this feminist non-profit which started three years ago to ensure more women’s voices are heard as news sources? More than that, would we do a gender audit of Lester’s show, and discuss — openly on air — how he and his production team were doing to ensure that the people Lester interviewed justly represented South African society.

Quote This Woman+ works at the intersection of media and gender to close the gender gap in whose voices the public gets to hear when journalists and presenters interview experts and opinion-makers for their news stories. We have a multifaceted theory of change, spearheaded by a database of more than 650 women+ experts that we curate for reporters to access when looking for someone beyond the default for their news stories. We lobby hard that media use this database as a first resource when looking for someone to quote.

The Morning Review call left the QW+ team gobsmacked. And not just a little impressed. Often QW+ has received significant support from SA’s media landscape. But never has anybody laid open to our scrutiny the deep inner working of their news production teams and said: “Here we are. Warts and all. Nothing hidden and nothing artificially inflated. Tell us how we’re doing and what we need to change.”

So for two weeks, QW+ analysed the content of the with Lester Kiewit on Cape Talk. We tallied the number of men against women, and then looked at this again in terms of race, gender, sexuality and other aspects that keep voices from getting to the forefront of the media — such as class and education for example, where not speaking with the right Model C accent might get you glossed over when being interviewed. We also looked at each source’s area of expertise, and whether the story was a hard news or soft news story.

Unlike other media gender gap analysts whose interests are primarily science rather than working within the media landscape for change, there were some indicators that — perhaps controversially — we discounted.

Disturbingly we see women’s realities being ignored as those with political grapple with the difficult choices we face if we are to do things differently with these elections and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Borrowing from the adage that we start by “changing the things that we can” rather than what we cannot, QW+ removes from its indicators interviews with people who they must cite and whose gender is out of their ambit of control: for example, the minister of health.

Finally, for each man interviewed, we turned to our database and checked out: was there a possible women+ alternative? Could there have been a woman+ voice to balance the dominance of men’s voices on this story?

And, in our view, if a women+ voice had been added: what would the narrative had looked like then? How would the nuance of the story have shifted?

Where are the women?

It’s widely known that women make up more than half the population; but not so widely known is that they make up less than 20% of sources in our media. When we switch on our radios and TVs, open our newspapers or read our favourite news online, four times out of five, the expert whose opinion we’re going to hear giving a context to the breaking news story of the day is going to be a man.

And a certain type of man to boot: cisgender, urban and speaking with a middle-class accent.

We need to wake up and acknowledge that that’s not what the real world looks like.

The voice that tells the story, writes history

The women+ who are the most severely affected by poverty, inequality, poor service delivery, poor health care, violence, health crises, environmental degradation and the overall failure of democratic functioning almost never have their voices heard and almost never have a seat at the decision-making table. Despite this: when crisis hits, they are the people found organising their neighbourhoods and communities, and they are the ones implementing solutions that are the safety nets for many.

If we as a country are serious about trying to rebuild inclusively, we should make sure we hear from all the country’s population — and that means ensuring the voices of women+ leaders and community members are amplified as much as the voices of men.

With ANC’s elective conference in December, getting women’s voices heard in the news and through the media is of critical importance in a country like SA, because as far as gender rights go, we’re heading for a dangerous situation. Women’s voices are being left out of too many conversations that are critical to helping us understand a pivotal moment in our history — nationally, in the context of the recent spate of sexual violence, femicide and political violence as well as the underlying issues of governance, corruption, failure of state and maladministration; and globally as we are all still grappling with the Covid-19 health pandemic and what it has exposed about our world.

The media reflects society, and when women are left out of news stories, it becomes easy for other power bases to overlook them too. So disturbingly we see women’s realities being ignored while grappling with the difficult choices we face if we are to do things differently with these elections and not make the same mistakes of the past. Women’s perspectives are not being given sufficient weight as political parties draw up their election manifestos, which is really important because women and men experience life differently. Women offer different perspectives, often deep nuances that make for a better understanding of a spectrum of issues. In a world of binary thinking and where so much is at stake, these different perspectives can become critical in deepening and broadening debates.

Not exactly forty five percent

Before we started, we asked Lester to estimate what percentage of women+ he interviewed. “45%” was his guess. Our calculations put him 29% out. In the two week period we monitored, the Morning Review interviewed 16% women; placing them 4% below the national average of 20%. And of this 16%, 10% were black women, which compared unfavourably against the country’s population of 47% black women.

The Morning Review interviewed 80% men — 43% white (against a population of 4%) and 37% black, (against a population of 45%).

They also interviewed 4% — all black — from what we as intersectional feminists at QW+ count in the plus category — and unfortunately Stats SA doesn’t give an instant breakdown of this.

Why the gender bias in news?

Deciding who makes news is a complex juggling act made by journalists, editors and producers daily, in the context of diminishing budgets, few experienced staff and workloads that have expanded to include the creation of content across increasing numbers of media platforms.

The pressure to get the best interview from the best possible expert is intense. Too often this means people in news fall back on the sources they are familiar with — who will take their calls and give a quotable quote. Too often that’s likely to be a man.

But perversely, this crisis in the media environment is the opportunity that allows QW+ a chance to start to close the gender gap.

We tell news producers and news editors — “let us help you find a fresh and credible voice — they’ll be a woman, or an expert with a disability, or an expert who is gender nonconforming, and they’ll give a great interview, and you’ll get the quote you need, when you need it, and you’ll use us again.”

Total men and women per race.
Total men and women per race.
Image: Quote This Woman+

Women experts have it tough

It’s been shown that women generally receive less mentoring, and are less likely to be invited to share the centre-stage early on in their careers, meaning that often they’re less confident in dealing with the media than men.

There’s one school of thought that says women hold themselves to higher expert standards than men do. A woman may acknowledge that she knows a great deal about a particular subject, she’ll keep off our database because she believes there are other people who know even more. Not so with a man.

The other side of the story is that no matter how senior they are, women not only carry out the majority of unpaid work at home, they also consistently pick up the low-grade housekeeping type work in every office: taking notes, unjamming the printer, playing mother on an organisational level. So there is another school of thought that women don’t avoid media engagements because they lack self-esteem, they avoid media engagement because they lack time.

Fifty, forty-five or sixteen? You choose.

When we look at the gender gap in sources — we have to refrain from what I once heard described as the Walt Disney view of democratisation, rah-rah campaigns that temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms — the underlying systemic pathologies remain.

This is why we say we’re coming at this as intersectional feminists interested at a long-term approach of chipping away at the power relationships underlying the problems. And this is something we cannot do alone. The media belongs to all of us in society, and it is going to take real collectivism to create the media our world — our future — needs.

One of our favourite sayings at QW+ is “What gets measured can get changed”. We’ve provided the Morning Review team with the basis to continue measuring its gender gap, and put in place a simple system — using pen and paper — that they can now use to count the gender of those contributors over which they have control. Only once they understand who they are and who they are not interviewing, will they be in position to uncover why this is so, and to start to identify obstacles, and find ways to overcome them.

This is a system that audiences at home can institute too — with their favourite news programmes on radio and TV or even by deciding to monitor the front page of the newspaper they buy. You can simply draw up a simple table with the following headings running across the top of your page from left to right:

1. Day  2. Interview  3. Woman  4. Plus*  5. Man  6. Total

Down the left margin right the numbers one to ten and so on. You can also add black/white if you want, like we did. We think it’s important.

For each interview, put a tally in each column for showing the breakdown of person interviewed. So if you were monitoring Lester’s interview with QW’s Kath Magrobi, a white woman, you’d mark a single tally for woman and white. If the next interview was with a black man, you’d tally under man and black.

At the end of the day, you’d calculate totals for each column. The total column adds up each Woman, Plus and Man row. You can calculate the percentage each column makes of the total and compare the totals you have against the population percentage that group comprises.

QW+ has no doubt the results will surprise you. And we’d urge you to reach out to your radio station or newspaper with the results and encourage them to do some navel gazing around them.

And: once you get the hang of this data management and of doing these calculations, you can add in more columns, such as black men vs white men, and black women vs white women, and area of expertise, or hard news vs soft news, if you want.

Population data
Population data
Image: Woman+

Unhappily sometimes, refraining from that Walt Disney NGO work referred to earlier means accepting a grittier worldview than we’d always like to. It means getting over the idea that a single intervention on the importance of the gender gap and can overcome systemic obstacles that created the problem in the first place. Or that lobbying to legislate for change in media laws will make any difference.

As a gender organisation QW+ is committed to asking what we call The Big Whys when we work with media organisations, and we’re resigned to not finding cut-and-dried answers. What’s happening in one area might not be the same in another. That’s why we try our best to work in producers’ and journalists’ shoes, understand their processes, and how their specific newsrooms, experts, and audiences think, feel, act and react around who makes their news stories. Truly grappling with these contexts is slow. It’s difficult, and risky. Which is why we take our hat off to Lester and the Morning Review team for taking the first step to ask the important questions.

The Morning Review team have our unwavering commitment to help them find the right expert for their stories so they continue to produce their unique and wonderful brand of quality journalism — but without a gender gap. And they’ve taken up the challenge to bring us back on the show on Women’s Day 2023 to report back their change. We challenge news audiences to be there too — with their own stories of lobbying their media to use more representative voices for more nuanced, more reflective news.

* As intersectional feminists, Quote This Woman+ includes, along with women, all othered communities and all experts whose voices are outside mainstream media. This means not only women, but people living with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people in rural areas where the media don’t often focus, and experts whose lives are the most impacted by poverty and inequality.

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.