Gender and The Media: Then and Now

"Women in public life face the same online dangers as men, but in addition they are specifically targeted with abuse and threats simply for being women who choose to take on a public role as human rights activists, journalists or politicians. The situation is heightened and exacerbated by intersectional factors, including racism, religious bigotry, sectarianism, and homophobia, as well as by disinformation."

By Lesley Abdela

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays.

Since 2001 I have had the pleasure of working with the Media Diversity Institute team in different parts of the world. One of our earliest collaborations was a Media Relations Guide for the Roma. My partner Tim Symonds and I were co-authors, Milica Pesic was the editor. This led to further cooperation on media communication workshops in Budapest and Skopje for Roma leaders, guest-speaking at MDI’s MA Course in Diversity and the Media in London, workshops on ‘Inclusive Media for Inclusive Societies’ for media and civil society organisations in Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh and Oujda in Morocco. My most recent MDI assignment was providing technical support, advice and mentoring to develop a Gender Action Plan for a three-year project in Sri Lanka monitoring and combating online hate speech and disinformation. I worked closely online with enthusiastic, committed young Sri Lankan techies from non-governmental organisation (NGO), Hashtag Generation, which is the MDI partner in “Get the Trolls Out Sri Lanka” (GTTOSL) project.   

Gender and diversity in the media have been the focus of my work for decades. I have worked on these issues in 50 countries, in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Asia, as a journalist, broadcaster, civil society activist, women’s rights campaigner, and professional gender and diversity consultant, with feet on the ground in post-conflict situations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, Cyprus and Aceh/Indonesia. My articles have been published in the main British broadsheet newspapers and journals, e.g. The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, Sunday Times, The Observer, The Telegraph, The Economist, New Statesman, The World Today (a journal from the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs), and major British women’s magazines, as well as international publications such as The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, and (on-line) openDemocracy, The Guardian’s Comment is Free section, and CNN International.  

I have only once been front-page news myself. I had just been selected to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Party in the UK 1979 General Election. At that time, single-parent mothers and divorced women were verbally attacked by politicians and some sectors of the media. The frontpage banner headline in The Hertfordshire Mercury, the main newspaper in my constituency, declared Liberals Select Divorcee!. It felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. I felt humiliated and shamed. My first instinct was to offer to resign as a parliamentary candidate. But I didn’t. I decided to fight back and make the rights of single-parent families one of the two key issues of my election campaign, the other being the environment.  

Apart from that one headline, the local media, including The Hertfordshire Mercury itself, treated me fairly. Although I didn’t win the seat, standing for a Parliamentary election was a truly enjoyable experience. The internet and social media did not exist. I got off lightly compared to today with the way online gender-trolling is impacting the physical, emotional and mental well-being of many women in public life and their families.   

I would not want stand for political office as a woman in today’s world. On the one hand, the internet has been a miracle in bringing people around the world together to share ideas and promote good causes and democracy. Digital media has served as a powerful tool for women and girls to their efforts to mobilise and bring hidden issues to the attention of media and policymakers. The #Me Too social movement against sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape culture trended in at least 85 countries. The campaign prompted survivors from around the world to share their stories and name their perpetrators. The European Parliament convened a session directly in response to the #MeToo campaign, after it gave rise to allegations of abuse in Parliament and in the European Union’s offices in Brussels.  

On the other hand, it is a global phenomenon that women politicians, women journalists, women‘s rights campaigners and women in other sectors of public life receive malicious, misogynist online media abuse, including threats and intimidation, cyberstalking, trolling, cyber-bullying, hate speech, public shaming and doxxing. Women in public life face the same online dangers as men, but in addition they are specifically targeted with abuse and threats simply for being women who choose to take on a public role as human rights activists, journalists or politicians. The situation is heightened and exacerbated by intersectional factors, including racism, religious bigotry, sectarianism, and homophobia, as well as by disinformation. 

In 2019, The Guardian published an article by Raisa Wickrematunge about a woman named Meena (her name has been changed to protect her identity), whose story exemplifies the pervasive and global nature of online violence towards women in politics. The threats began after Meena decided to run in local government elections in Sri Lanka. In a Facebook post, she was pictured circled in red among a group of people. “We opened some new shops that day, part of a collective project,” she told the reporter. “This post implies that I’m the mistress of one of the ministers in the photo.”  

That was one of the milder insults. Meena was called a sex worker, among other things, and hateful comments were made towards her immediate family. Volunteers helping with her campaign dropped out following repeated threats. Stones were thrown at Meena’s house, and flyers containing defamatory claims against her were distributed. She went to the police, but they took no action in response to her complaints. As with the Facebook posts, there have been no consequences for the perpetrators. “I expected nearly 1,000 votes [in the election],” she said. “Because of the slander and harassment, that number fell by more than half. Now, I’m left with my 333 votes and a file full of printouts of the harassment I received online.” Meena’s experiences left her needing counselling. “Unless people take action, how are women to move forward?” she asked. 

Research published in January 2023 by the Fawcett Society, a United Kingdom gender equality charity, found that 93% of female UK Members of Parliament said online abuse and harassment had a negative impact on them, compared with 76% of men. In an article in The Guardian in February 2023, senior reporter Emine Sinmaz gave examples of the brutality of modern day political life for women in the UK. Caroline Nokes MP, the Conservative chair of the UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, said she had reported death threats to the police. “The worst was from a bloke who said he wanted to rape and torture me until I was dead,” she said. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s  former outgoing First Minister, described the current environment for women in politics as “much harsher and more hostile” than at any time in her decades-long career. “Social media provides a vehicle for the most awful abuse, misogyny, sexism and threats of violence for those women who put their heads above the parapet,” Sturgeon told the BBC’s Kirsty Wark in a documentary. The same day Scotland’s First Minister announced her resignation, a 42-year-old man was jailed for sending her an email saying she was going to “face a hanging” for treason. Two weeks earlier, a 70-year-old man was found guilty of threatening to assassinate her. 

Perpetrators of hate speech and divisive narratives operate globally in social media. They use a variety of tools and tactics to contaminate public discourse. Former kickboxer Andrew Tate is a recent high-profile example. Tate rose to fame and notoriety through controversial social media posts where he said that women should “bear responsibility” for having been sexually assaulted. In an interview with another YouTuber, Tate said he was “absolutely a misogynist”. Tate’s primary audience is impressionable teenage boys, many of whom start to pick up on his sexist statements and views. Tate’s influence affects how pre-teen boys see the world — particularly how they perceive women. 

He has had a worldwide profile, boasting over 3.5 million followers on Twitter. On TikTok, videos marked as #AndrewTate have been viewed more than 12.7 billion times, although that figure also includes videos made by people criticising the influencer. At the time of writing this, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have banned him, then he was put under house arrest in Romania for suspected human trafficking and organised crime. 

The Balkan Wars. I had not yet met Milica Pesic at the time of the 1990s Balkan wars. Women journalists in the region Milica comes from were often under deadly threat. In a woman’s magazine I wrote, “Vesna Kesic, a Founder of the Centre for War Victims and well-known writer and journalist, and 4 other women journalists were persecuted, received death threats and branded ‘witches’ by the male-dominated Croatian establishment. Their crime? They dared suggest in a newspaper that rape in war might be an attack on women as a gender rather than on a nationality. Vesna said, ‘I was shocked at the reaction. I’d thought I was a powerful enough public figure to be safe. War propaganda and strong nationalism in all the countries excluded everyone who doesn’t fit the male warrior ideal.’” 

Women journalists and women human rights campaigners still sometimes receive threats in the Balkans. The life sentence suffered by women and girls raped in war is mostly invisible to the media. The gunfire may have fallen silent but their pain thunders on. Turkish journalist Sherif Turgut lived four years with a Bosnian family in Sarajevo. She said, “The women feel angry. Once they were the centre of world media attention – now they feel they are forgotten.” Sherif reported that these women want two things:  

1. To see the war criminals who raped and those who ordered the rapes brought before the International Criminal Court at The Hague. 

2. To receive training and help to rebuild their lives and earn a living; many are now without husbands.  

Men wounded in war are often treated as heroes by the media and by their communities. They are rewarded with respect, pensions, medals and even statues. By contrast, even today in 2023, all around the world women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) – rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilisation, forced marriage, and other forms of sexual violence – are mostly treated as damaged goods. The lifelong shame, the rejection and stigmatisation they experience from their communities and sometimes even their families, are mostly ignored by the media. In some societies, women who have been raped in war are even considered to have committed a crime. (Men, boys and LGBTQI+ also fall prey to this sort of conduct during war and merit specific separate support and actions.)  

Thousands of women and girls across the Balkan region were raped in the conflicts of the 1990s. No-one knows the exact number, in part because many felt too ashamed to report what happened to them.  

I was a speaker at an online 2021 conference in which H.E. Atifete Jahjaga, president of the Republic of Kosovo from 2011 to 2016, said, “In Kosovo to this day, thousands of CRSV survivors live in isolation, imprisoned by shame, stigma, discrimination, and fear. They struggle with social ostracism, emotional torment, psychological damage, physical injuries, and in many cases, also diseases. Few women have spoken publicly about their trauma for fear of being ostracised or bringing shame upon their family in a highly traditional society.”   

Women’s Magazines and Women’s Voices. In 1993, Marcelle D’Argy-Smith, then editor of UK Cosmopolitan, appointed me as political editor of this best-selling magazine. This was the first time any British women’s magazine had appointed a political editor.  

Cosmopolitan was the most widely read British women’s monthly magazine, with a readership of over 3 million, about a quarter of whom were men. Women’s magazines in the UK are a trusted source of information for women, but the male establishment often looked down on these publications. The Serjeant at Arms at the House of Commons refused to give me a Parliament press pass on the grounds that no women’s magazine had ever been allotted one. 

In addition to my main articles in Cosmopolitan, Marcelle D’Argy-Smith assigned me responsibility for writing international news snippets for a regular monthly page titled Cosmo World. I later wrote for a similar page titled Global Issues in Women’s Journal magazine. Among the notes I wrote in the 1990s to include on those pages, the following could have been written in 2023: 

‘Human rights campaigns report the horrors perpetrated in the name of the Mullahs in Iran on women who haven’t covered their hair with headscarves in the prescribed manner.’ 

‘Racist and alarmist media coverage of refugees arriving in Dover.’ 

‘In the US the ‘Christian Right’ soldiers are on the march. George Dean, Founder of the US 50/50 by 2000 campaign, a bi-partisan campaign to get more women elected to the Congress and winner of the US National Women’s Political Caucus ‘Good Guys Award’, told me he was scared by the Christian Right taking over control of the Republican Party, a Party he usually supported: “It will be bad news for women. The Christian Right in America are anti-choice and against giving women equal rights,” he said.’   

The 1995 UN Beijing Conference gave women’s rights a boost in the global media. I was among the 35,000 women (and a few men) from 189 countries who headed to Beijing for the now iconic Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace convened by the United Nations from 4th-15th September.  

I attended the conference as a civil society activist and as a journalist filing for Radio Viva in London and writing for Cosmo. I still get goose-pimples remembering Hillary Clinton’s speech, in which she proclaimed, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be, ‘human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights’.”  

It was at meetings during the UN Beijing conference that I first heard the concept of gender mainstreaming. The conference created the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most comprehensive agenda to date on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Gender mainstreaming was established as a major global strategy for the promotion of gender equality in the Beijing Conference Platform for Action. 

A few years later I encountered the terms intersectionality and social inclusion. These approaches seek to ensure the rights of all groups are taken into account. Looking through the lens of intersectionality is critical for understanding the complexities and inequalities in the lives of women and girls, men and boys.  

In 2020, I was the international consultant for The Gender Charter for Sri Lanka Media, a joint project of IREX, Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum, and USAID. The Gender Charter sets out standards and ethics for media reporting in relation to women and girls. In addition, it covers policies and practices related to gender equality in media-sector workplaces. The contents of the charter were the result of consultations held with a wide range of media practitioners and civil society in Sri Lanka on what they wanted included. I also provided checklists and guidelines on how to consider and apply gender mainstreaming, intersectionality and social inclusion in the media.   

Home Sweet Home’ – or is it? Media coverage of Domestic Violence. The United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is observed each year on 25th November. In November 2008, I was commissioned by The Guardian to write an opinion article on the issue. In my piece, I expressed my frustration that even though one or two women were being murdered each week in the UK by a current or former partner, the media rarely covered these individual crimes or named the perpetrators. By comparison, almost every month there was a headliner story in the British media about a youth stabbing. My article triggered 129 comments from readers, many from men who seemed less than happy I had raised the issue of men’s violence against women, even though the story was highlighting the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.   

A few victims of domestic violence are men. However, in four out of five cases, the victims of intimate-partner murders are women. Why the difference in media coverage and political outrage? Thirty years ago many people, including editors and journalists, were unaware of the existence or extent of domestic violence, or even felt it was normal and OK for a man to beat his wife or girlfriend. In those days, in the UK, the police were not even supposed to intervene in what they euphemistically termed “a domestic”. 

Unlike their predecessors, today’s editors and journalists can no longer plead ignorance of the topic. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, campaigner Erin Pizzey put the issue of domestic violence into the public domain when she founded Chiswick Women’s Aid. Since then, women’s organisations such as the Fawcett Society, Southall Black Sisters, Refuge, Women’s Aid, and more recently the White Ribbon Campaign, a global movement of men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls, have all drawn attention to this horrific, hidden, silent spring of violence. 

Widowhood. The systematic, widespread and inhumane physical violence and psychological abuse of widows of all ages across the world remains another topic badly neglected by the media. Many widows face economic, social, physical, and psychological violence from their marital families and communities. The COVID-19 pandemic, deadly conflicts, climate change, and humanitarian crises have boosted the numbers of widows. There are a multitude of ways in which widows are mistreated, both offline and increasingly online. In Africa, for example, the widespread online dissemination of the disinformation that sex with young virgins can cure AIDS or prevent HIV infection triggered an increase in the ranks of older, HIV-infected men taking child brides. This has led to a growing number of child-widows condemned to a lifetime of being subjected to mistreatment, ostracisation, forced prostitution, or being trafficked.  

Panel discussions. In the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, women in the UK were rarely invited on TV or radio panel discussion current affairs or political programmes or consulted by the press as pundits, authorities or experts. I noticed that when I was invited on panel discussions such as BBC TV Question Time and BBC Radio Any Questions, the format of the panel generally included three men and, at most, one woman. In one of our campaigns to improve diversity, Tim Symonds and I lobbied TV producers of political and current affairs programmes for gender balance in discussion programmes such as Question Time, Any Questions and Dateline London. In the latter, foreign correspondents based in London analysed events in the UK through the eyes of outsiders. As part of our campaign, we wrote letters to the programme producers to persuade them to include an equal number of women and men as pundits on their programmes and suggested the names of women they could invite across the range of topics: Politics & Government, Elections, International Affairs, the Economy, Science and Technology, Peace and Security, Environment/Climate Change, Crime and violence, Employment, Sport, Transport, the Arts etc. In addition to our efforts at persuading producers, we wrote articles in the press ‘naming and shaming’ current affairs TV and radio discussion programmes which featured only or mainly men.  

We called on them to improve the gender balance on their shows.  In the UK in the past decade, participation by women as pundits in TV and radio discussion programmes and as political programme anchors has changed a great deal for the better – but there is still a way to go. Just under a quarter of expert voices in the news are now women, a rise from 19% five years ago. However, in its Expert Women Project, the City University of London’s journalism department monitored how the COVID pandemic led to a decrease in the use of women experts on TV. The Project’s findings suggest that featuring a male expert is still the norm. Topics deemed to be of interest to men gain more airtime. Male experts are used more often and for longer on stories of interest to men than are female experts on stories of interest to women. 

Who Makes the News? The 2020 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) found that gender equality as depicted in the news still lags behind gender equality in the actual world. The GMMP predicts that it will take at least 67 more years to close the global average gender equality gap in traditional news media. The GMMP is the largest and longest-running research project on gender in the world’s news media. Every five years since 1995, GMMP research has taken the pulse of selected indicators of gender in the news media, including women’s presence in relation to men, gender bias and stereotypes in news stories and other content.  

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, wrote the foreward to the 2020 GMMP report. She stated, “For the past year, the majority of the global news coverage has been dominated by COVID-19, yet the data shows us that women’s voices have been yet again largely absent from the conversation. When women are on average 46 per cent of health specialists in reality, but appeared as such in just 27 per cent of coronavirus stories, inaccurate gender stereotypes are reinforced. At a time when a ‘shadow pandemic’ of violence against women and girls raged around the world, the fact that only 6 out of 100 stories were related to sexual harassment, rape and sexual assault against women risks normalising gender-based violence.” She finished with a message to the world’s media: “By hearing more women’s voices in the news as experts and leaders, and by seeing their stories featured centrally in ways that push against simplistic stereotypical gender roles, the media can create the more accurate, inclusive and empowering representation we need as the world rebuilds”.  

Future challenges. One emerging trend is ageism compounded with sexism. A 2014 City University research showed that male experts still outnumbered female experts on the main news programmes by a ratio of four to one, but men also had a screen life ten years longer than their female counterparts. UK TV presenter Michael Parkinson rejoiced that he had been able to carry on with his screen career until 73 – “but how many women can do that?”  

“We are seeing a pushback on women’s rights; we must push back on the pushback,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his opening remarks to the Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March 2022. Like many women and men working in the cross-section of civil society sector and the media, I have spent many a year shouting at seats of power. I have recently witnessed women beginning to lose rights they had begun, painfully and slowly, to gain. A recent example involves sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States. In 1973, the US Supreme Court’s landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, made this medical procedure legal across the United States. On 24th June 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court — the nation’s final arbiter on what is legal under the US Constitution—overturned Roe v. Wade. The decision dismantled 50 years of legal protection and paved the way for individual states to curtail or outright ban the right to obtain an abortion.    

A 2020 report from the Global Philanthropy Project, “Mapping the funding of the global anti-gender ideology”, defined the anti-gender movement as “a network of actors engaged in campaigns and actions against gender equality and the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people with a specific focus on Sexual and Reproductive Human Rights (SRHR) and access to sex education.” The report stated: “An examination of publicly available documents of organisations associated with the anti-gender movement reveals that between 2008-2017: $259 million has been distributed to countries throughout Asia and the Pacific, including Australia; at least $248 million into countries in South America; $238 million into countries in Africa; $174 million into countries in Europe; $94 million into Central America; and $70 million into Russia.” 

United Kingdom. I remember as a child seeing notices that read: ‘Room to Rent. No blacks, no  Irish, no dogs’. I also remember the cruelty of famous trials in which men were convicted and sentenced to prison for nothing except being homosexual. Until the mid-1970s, women were forced to resign from their jobs in the civil service and as teachers when they got married. It was perfectly legal to declare verbally and in job advertisements that only men could apply.  

I am happy to say we have come a long way in the UK since those bad old days. In the past 25 years, Free Media, civil society, political leaders, and thousands of individual women’s rights campaigners have helped make progress on issues that have historically been hidden, ignored or considered too hot to handle. We now have a number of mechanisms setting the legal and cultural tone that discrimination is no longer acceptable and that pluralism should be welcomed and celebrated.  

Although there is more work needed on implementation Under current UK law, it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of age, race, sex, gender reassignment, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, when buying or renting property, at work, in education, as a consumer, when using public services, as a member or guest of a private club or association. Social attitudes in the UK on divorce and single-parent mothers and issues such as ethnicity, race, religious tolerance and LGBTQI+ people have liberalised and progressed, LGBTQI+ people can marry. Women and men from diverse ethnicities and religions serve as government ministers, members of parliament, TV presenters, journalists, leaders of local councils, and newspaper editors.   

Progress toward gender equality and diversity in the UK is still a work in progress.  

MDI is needed for at least another 25 years. There is still a long road ahead to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ (UN Sustainable Development Goal 5). I hope sharing my memories reminds everyone why MDI’s work is needed more than ever in a profoundly disturbed world. Portraying gender in a fair and ethical manner will only occur when it becomes a concern for all media practitioners. This includes digital citizen journalists, bloggers, podcasters, mainstream media journalists, media owners, photographers, news editors, camera operators, programme anchors, cartoonists, TV and radio programme producers and directors, TV/radio debate programme producers, self-regulatory bodies, journalism schools, and unions, fact checkers, and HR managers in media institutions. Civil society actors contribute to this process through monitoring, advocacy and dialogue with media.  

*Lesley Abdela MBE is Senior Partner in UK based Shevolution Consultancy. For decades gender and diversity have been the focus of her work as a journalist, broadcaster, civil society activist, women’s rights campaigner, and professional gender and diversity consultant. She has worked on these issues in 50 countries, in Europe, Middle East. Africa, Central and South Asia, and feet on the ground in conflict and post conflict situations including Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Aceh/ Indonesia, Cyprus, and Bosnia Herzegovina. Clients have included international organisations, Civil Society, media, and private sector companies: MDI, IREX, EC, the British Council, The Inter-Parliamentary Union, UKFCDO. She was Senior Gender Advisor to UN agencies in Nepal. She has developed and delivered hundreds of workshops for institutions and diverse citizens