Working toward gender parity: how to increase female representation in the news

Front page photos: Filipino freelance journalist, Beatrice Lauren Go, and Hong Kong-Canadian journalist, Angie Lau, at Forkast.News. Row 1: Nigerian-American journalist, Chika Oduah, at VICE News; Indian journalist, Tehmina Kaoosji, based in Malaysia Row 2: American journalist, Lori Matsukawa, formerly with NBC affiliate in Seattle; American journalist, Sara Sidner, at CNN Row 3: Franco-Cape-Verdean journalist, Anne-Marie Dias Borges, at BBC; Filipino-American journalist, Elaine Quijano, at CBS Row 4: British-American journalist, Clarissa Ward, at CNN; Chinese journalist, Vicky Xu, formerly with The New York Times Row 5: German journalist, Vivian Perkovic, at Kulturzeit; Ghanaian freelance journalist, Bridget Otoo; American journalist, Mara Montalbano, at Inside Edition; Kenyan journalist, Winnie Kabintie at Wikipedia. Illustration by Georgia Scott.

“We’re still a minority … there are things we still have to work on. Number one is that we still need more women leaders,” says Beatrice Lauren Go, a freelance sports journalist at Philippine online news website Rappler. Sports journalism in the Philippines is a male-dominated industry; as one of the few women in her newsroom, Beatrice is a trailblazer.

Formerly an athlete, she now covers Philippine sports governance, national athletes, and teams. In an interview, she shares her experience as a female journalist, noting some instances where gender stereotyping occurs in reporting news, such as articles tailored for the “male gaze.” Female athletes would often be called “Aqua-belle” or “Volley-belle”; articles on female athletes would focus on their appearance; pictures of the athletes would feature them in exposing swimwear rather than their uniform. These articles say a lot about what we can do to diversify our newsroom to have well-rounded and unbiased reporting.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are integral parts of our life and are incorporated into our workspace. However, much can still be improved regarding gender equality, particularly in the newsroom.

In an analysis carried out in 2021 by Reuters Institute on the gender breakdown of top editors in 240 major online and offline news outlets across four continents, only 22% of the 180 top editors are women. This is despite the fact that, on average, 40% of journalists in the 12 markets are women.

With this in mind, a research project involving over 1,000 journalists was carried out by the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), with the support of the Meta Journalism Project, to design relevant initiatives for advancing DEI in Asia’s newsrooms and news coverage. The research project was also further discussed in an expert panel discussion moderated by Telum Media in May. One of the heated topics broached was female journalists in the newsrooms.

According to the report, female journalists feel unsupported and sexual harassment against women in news outlets or when interacting with sources and newsmakers remains prevalent. Women are alienated and isolated from workspaces; they are left to fend for themselves.

Thus, it is unsurprising that women are under-represented in the news, especially in articles as experts, protagonists, or sources. A report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation titled “The Missing Perspectives of Women in News” investigated women’s under-representation in news media, their continual marginalization in news coverage, and the under-reported issue of gender inequality.

The author of the report and co-founder and director of AKAS (an international audience strategy consultancy), Luba Kassova, said in a virtual media briefing covered by Poynter that “In the 21st century, news is produced mainly by men, featuring more men, and is consumed by more men.”

According to Kassova, women are between two and six times less likely to be quoted in the news as experts, protagonists, or sources in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. The report also addresses the challenges uncovered by offering 50 evidence-based recommendations and a checklist for newsrooms to use as they aim to increase women’s representation, reduce biases and achieve gender parity.

The gender inequality calls for initiatives that promote a more proportionate representation of women. Kassova’s research suggested strategies such as compiling lists of women contributors and experts for journalists to use to gender-balance stories; educating journalists about existing male biases in the choice of sources and experts, and introducing a gender-neutral checklist of principles to follow when portraying victims and perpetrators of crime in news stories to redress the biased portrayal of women.

In an interview with N3Magazine, Beatrice offers some advice to aspiring female journalists: “Be bold and confident. Self-examination and reflection are important in letting you know what’s holding you back from achieving what you want. If you find out that fear is the one hindering you from achieving or moving forward, then it’s about preparing yourself to conquer that fear. Reassure yourself and have a different perspective on things. Make sure you find a safe space.”

On the other hand, Angie Lau, Editor-in-Chief of Forkast.News, also offers some general advice for newsrooms. She advises newsrooms to “create an environment of inclusivity by listening first … that’s from managers all the way down to the reporters and editors.” We should “take responsibility for how we take care to listen more deeply, and consider the other person’s perspective.” For international newsrooms, she suggests being “conscious of culture, tone, style—it can be dramatically different from individual to individual.”

The key takeaway is that “newsroom leaders should champion listening.” Listening “begets respect … which breaks down the walls of exclusion.”

Although steps are made toward increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our newsrooms, more can be done to encourage equal gender representation in our newsrooms and articles. 

Take the South China Morning Post as an example—in the panel discussion moderated by Telum Media, Cliff Buddle, Special Projects Editor at the SCMP, spoke about how the SCMP has created a database of women experts that its journalists can use to diversify their sources. They also use analytics to address the imbalance in readership demographics.

Newsrooms can take a page from the South China Morning Post and implement policies or initiatives to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workspace.