While discussion on gender bias in media coverage generally centers on sports, a new paper bolsters the theory that the phenomenon transcends subject matter.
Published in the American Sociological Review Thursday, the study analyzes content from over 2,000 U.S. newspapers, magazines, and websites dating from 1983 to 2009. Using a news analysis system called Lydia, researchers were able to scan hundreds of digital records and systematically catalogue the incidence of male vs. female mentions. The results provide not only new data on the media’s underrepresentation of women, but possible explanations why.
Of the articles studied, five out of every six names referenced in the news coverage were men, meaning they made up a staggering 82 percent of the coverage. The authors found the underrepresentation of women in written media to be caused by two factors. One, the media’s focus on the “highest strata” of individuals; and two, the lack of women in these positions.
“The media focuses nearly exclusively on individuals at the top of occupational and social hierarchies, who are mostly men: CEOs, congressmen, movie directors, and the like,” says Eran Shor, lead author of the study and a sociology professor at McGill University. “And because these famous individuals account for most of the name occurrences in the news, the overall coverage difference between women and men has remained extremely wide.”
It was the latter reason, the lack of women in powerful positions, that Shor concluded to be the driving force behind the bias. “As long as men continue to monopolize the highest levels of occupational and social hierarchies, we are not likely to see a major shift in media coverage,” he says.
Despite more females in the industries studied—business, technology, entertainment, and sports—the gap has remained stagnant in some areas and worsened in others. “Male names have historically received at least four times as much exposure as female names and this ratio is still nearly 3:1 by the end of our observation period,” the authors write. “[But] when looking at the larger and more representative set of newspapers in our data-base, for which only recent digital data is available, the ratio is nearly 5:1.”
An influx of women into previously all-male industries doesn’t change the coverage unless these women are taking over key positions—which, according to recent data, they aren’t.
Women make up 52 percent of the professional workforce but make up only 8.1 percent of the top earners overall. They hold just 4.6 percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies, and 5 percent at Fortune 500 companies. Data from the World Bank in 2014 found that only 19 percent of U.S. Congress members were women—the highest percentage to date.
Shor and his team were most surprised to learn underrepresentation of women in the media extended into entertainment stories. But according to data from The American Center for Progress, it’s reflective of a larger problem. In the film industry, women accounted for just 16 percent of all the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors who worked on the top-grossing 250 domestic films of 2013.
“The large majority of those people mentioned in news, business, and even entertainment articles are men,” Shor said. “The entertainment coverage may be especially surprising because people tend to believe that female celebrities are just as, if not more, famous and draw at least equal amounts of attention as their male counterparts.”
While Shor and his team note that part of the reason for the discrepancy is the people in charge who decide what to cover (mostly men), they conclude that overall the problem is related to the amount of women in leadership roles. “The resulting dominance of men as subjects of public and dinner-table conversation may reinforce and normalize in the minds of audiences the notion that power and newsworthiness are something men have and, apparently, deserve.”
Other experts who have studied this issue may beg to differ. In the 2008 book Women and Media: A Critical Introduction authors Carolyn M. Byerly and Karen Ross argue that the achievements of women are not less than men, they’re merely overlooked. In Women, Media, and Politics, Pippa Norris brings together 21 essays from journalists and academics who explore why the area of women and media is deeply polarized.
The quote that perhaps best sums up their arguments is that of researcher Margaret Gallagher from her oft-cited review of early literature on women and media. “Perhaps the most important image is, in fact, a ‘non-image,’” she writes. “It is the absence of women in the media output which becomes the most striking, once it has been highlighted.”