Half the WorldWomen and the Media [Archives:2005/885/Reportage]

October 13 2005

By Nisha
Across the world, media has been male dominated. Even in the developed countries and countries with relatively lesser gender disparity in public sphere media policies and institutions are mostly in the hands of men – that means it is men who decide how women are going to be presented through the media. Since men lead media houses, they tend to hire men and when they do hire women they are generally allotted responsibilities related to subjects such as health, culture, beauty, makeup, fashion, family, cooking, and the like. Subjects like politics, economy, business, crime, etc are generally allocated to men. This lopsided hiring and allocation of responsibilities reinforces the traditional gender relations and division of labour. The reinforcement in turn helps continuation of stereotypical presentation of women and marginalization of the issues affecting women. Presence and visibility of women in important positions in the media, therefore, is significant for development of women in the society. Poor number of women in the media also makes the women who are in the media more vulnerable to attacks and exploitation.

It is, therefore, important that women's participation in media is analyzed in terms of the impact of poor representation of women on women's development in the society. Media is an important means by which women can participate in public debates, get people to hear their views, gain support for their concerns and make decisions about how they want themselves to be portrayed. Equally significant is to find out levels at which women work in the media and the implications of those findings on their ability to make a change in the hiring policies and practices, issues to be covered or given importance and the nature of representation of women.

In Yemen, there are limited numbers of women in the media. Very few of those who are in the media are far from senior or decision-making positions. Women are not seen capable of covering 'hard news'. That means the number of women hired by the media is linked to the size of space and air/broadcast time currently allotted to 'soft news' like health, culture, beauty, makeup, fashion, family, cooking. Since women's literacy in Yemen is very low and traditionally women do not read newspapers, they are not considered significant readers by the print media. Consequently, coverage of women's issue other than those mentioned so far is not seen as important and profitable or worth higher investment. The unwillingness to expand the coverage of women's issues presents another challenge to women who want to work in the media. Even the few women who are in responsible position in the media are forced to operate in the traditional system out of fear that a major departure from the tradition may bring economic losses which would jeopardize their position and the positions of their media houses. But it is important to note that these women do try in whatever way possible to improve the coverage of women's issues and to widen the scope of issues which are associated with women. For example, the series 'Half the World' which includes articles on issues affecting women was started by the first woman editor of Yemen Times who wanted part of the newspaper space to be used for improving the understanding of issues that affect women. Another issue which needs to be noted is that along with numerical under-representation of women in the media that affects their capacity to make a change, the near isolation of media women furthers weakens their negotiation power. Thankfully, in Yemen, there is a recent and growing move among media women to link with the women's organizations and forming their own networks.

One of the major factors behind poor presence and participation of women in the media and media's decision-making structures is the continuation of the tendency among men to see women as subordinate to them. Such attitudes are manifest in the media being predominantly led by men and women being viewed as a section of society which can move up and down economically but their socio-cultural status in the society remains low and static. These biases cause gender-based discriminations against women and reinforce stereotyped attitudes, result in harassment at workplace, inequities in remuneration and retirement age, unfair treatment in assignments and promotions, no provision to accommodate women's family responsibilities, and lack of support mechanisms for women journalists to take up challenging assignments. Such biases also ensure that training in journalism does not train students or apprentices to apply a gender perspective while covering issues. It also works against any consideration being given to challenging gender biased attitudes at the work place.

Another factor that is responsible for exclusion of substantial number of women from the media is women's lack of access to education and restrictions on mobility and for those women who do not face these two problems there are issues like absence of institutions that could help them gain requisite qualifications, poor or lack of access to new technologies. This is especially true of interior areas within governorates and rural areas. Since training women in unconventional vocations is not really on the agenda of either public or private sector there is little commitment to address barriers that prevent women from accessing new technologies and to take the training programmes to women.

One of the ways that would help in turning around the situation is filling the policy gap that does not address poor presence of women in the media, and sexist and stereotyped coverage, representation and portrayal of women by the media. Existing media codes and guidelines are mainly framed around questions of relationship between the state and the media. It is more about control and regulation of media as a potential threat to the ruling power rather than recognising the media as a tool of social transformation. As mentioned earlier, there have been some efforts to maintain self-enforced concern for gender issues by individual media houses but there are no common and standard mechanisms to regulate media content at large. The government takes little responsibility for regulation of media to prevent gender stereotyping and there is a lack of legal framework to promote gender equal practices in the media houses. Another step which must go alongside is that the society, especially media houses and the decision-makers in the government are educated about the need and rationale behind increasing women's participation and decision-making in the media. Otherwise, like any other effort to improve women's condition in Yemen, this demand may also get interpreted as women's desire to dominate and control or an attempt to attack culture.