2021 has been a year of reckoning against sexism and misogyny in Australia. From the selection of Grace Tame as Australian of the Year in recognition of her advocacy for fellow survivors of sexual assault, to the nationwide movement and revelations about Parliament sparked by former political staffer Brittany Higgins' rape allegations, to the courage shown by the women journalists who broke these stories - it has been a momentous year. Nevertheless, women's voices remain overwhelmingly underrepresented in the mainstream media.
On Wednesday, the Women's Leadership Institute Australia launched their 2021 Women for Media Report: "Take the Next Steps", which I co-authored with academic, journalist and Canberra Times columnist Dr Jenna Price. We analysed just over 60,000 print and online news media articles published in May 2021, focusing especially on coverage of the 2021 federal budget. We split this data into two sections. First, the "big picture" analysis of all online articles (57,000) published in that month; and second, the "top billing" analysis of almost 4000 stories appearing on the front page of print publications or in the top spot on a website homepage.
Together, these analyses produced some stark results. Looking at the big picture, we found that women authored only 35 per cent of the stories published. What journalists chose to write about was also divided along gendered lines, with women responsible for 53 per cent of health stories, 44 per cent of arts and entertainment stories, and 43 per cent of environment stories, while men wrote 87 per cent of sports stories and 65 per cent of politics and business stories. Although the 2021 budget was proclaimed a "budget for women" in recognition of the fact that women have largely borne the brunt of the pandemic's economic impact, men also dominated in coverage of this budget (67 per cent) and of COVID-19 (59 per cent).
In addition to this bias in authorship, men's voices also dominate the range of opinion cited in news stories, comprising almost 70 per cent of cited quotes while those attributed to women accounted only for 31 per cent. In fact, men provided more than half the quotes in all story categories, ranging from 54 per cent in arts and entertainment to 84 per cent in sports. Only 25 per cent of quotes cited in stories about either the federal budget or COVID-19 were attributed to women. This consistent overrepresentation of men and underrepresentation of women in the news media means men's voices and opinions on these issues are afforded more legitimacy and influence. It also means women's perspectives and issues are marginalised in public discourse.
When it comes to top billing, we found that most front-page articles featured male subjects and tended to overlook the expertise of women. On average, men's voices featured in 88 per cent of page one stories, while only 46 per cent featured women. The media must do better when it comes to women's representation in news stories to proactively counter this impression that men's stories are more important and newsworthy.
Despite increasing numbers of women in journalism, and even in decision-making positions, why do women's voices continue to be drowned out? Take the politics category of our analysis, for example, in which women wrote only 35 per cent of the stories published. Does this reflect a lack of women political correspondents?
We interviewed 10 leading figures in news organisations to gain their insights on the issue. One editor pointed to the difficulty in attracting women to Canberra due to a negative perception of the workplace culture, while another mentioned that she "can't comfortably have a drink with a male politician one-on-one, because the reality is people will talk whereas no one blinks if two men have a beer together". There is also a pipeline issue due to the difficulties women journalists face in a workplace culture inherently skewed toward the lives of men. These factors combine to create a space that makes it more difficult for women to do their jobs.
Another key factor is the extent to which politics remains a boy's club dominated by men, especially in senior positions. What do the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Opposition Leader, and Deputy Opposition Leader have in common? They're all men. Women account for only about 30 per cent of state and federal parliamentarians, and 27 per cent of Morrison's cabinet. With the resignation of NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian, there is also now only one woman in the national cabinet.
As such, we found that male politicians inevitably received more media attention than their women counterparts. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was the most prominent subject out of 1000 people who frequently appeared in stories, followed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg - this was unsurprising considering the release of the 2021 federal budget.
Yet while male ministers featured in an average of 51 articles, women ministers were subjects in an average of 17. This clearly shows a need for more women in politics, and even more so in decision-making and leadership positions. The more women attain these positions, the more representation they will receive where it most counts, and the more women will be encouraged to follow in their footsteps.
You can't be what you can't see - but likewise, you can't report on what isn't there. The media still has a role to play, and there are many areas for improvement in that sector. Yet, as stated in the report: "The lack of women subjects in the media reflects the lack of women in politics, but it also ensures against any change by representing Parliament as the boy's club that it is, thereby closing the loop."
The same can be said for other male-dominated categories like sports, business, and science.
What is clear is that despite the leaps and bounds made by women, the news is still overwhelmingly about, written by, and seen through the eyes of men. We desperately need a greater diversity of voices, life experiences, and perspectives that are more reflective of wider society.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow in politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.