Exploring the Global Gender Gap in Media in India

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On the day of my panel on the global gender gap in media at the International Conference on Gender Equality (ICGE) in Kerala, India, local news reported another gang rape in Kerala.

The immediate response from the local law enforcement minister was that the victim “shouldn’t have been walking in that area,” even though it was also reported that she was there looking for employment.

There is a link, here, of course — between blaming women who are sexually assaulted, instead of those who assault them, and a global media that misrepresents and underrepresents women.

 Signs of Progress

Indian women are demanding change, calling for better role models in in the very popular Bollywood films and TV shows, as well as more opportunities for women both behind and in front of the camera.

Another sign of progress: The Gender Park, which, along with UN Women, convened the ICGE. The park is a campus-like setting created by Kerala’s Department of Social Justice where "state, non-government organizations, academia and civil society unite for learning and research on gender equality, as well as one where innovative and new interventions, in partnership with various stakeholders, can directly support the empowerment of women and gender equality." In addition, the park is meant to provide “a space for all gender identities, including transgenders, to overcome the socio-economic and political boundaries imposed on them by society and contribute to the economic, cultural, and social aspects of the state and the country.”

To be sure, there is far to go: A report on the status of women in India, released at the conference, reported that rape cases in India more than doubled between 2001 and 2014. The same report says that only 25 percent of India’s workforce is made up of women. While Kerala boasts high numbers of female students in higher education (over 70 percent of college students are women), inequality on campus remains rampant.

But from the first plenary session with ministers representing every division of Kerala’s government, to the closing performance by a local transgender dance company, it was clear that Kerala’s commitment to gender equality is real and deep. Nearly half of government ministers are female, and during the conference, Kerala unveiled the country’s first transgender policy, designed to end discrimination against transgender citizens.

There is far to go, but these are signs of progress, and reasons for hope.

The Global Gender Gap in Media

The session I was a part of focused on the global gender gap in media. My fellow panelists included journalist Pamela Philipose, actor Parvathy and director Anjali Menon. The moderator was well-known Indian traditional dancer and political activist Mallika Sarabhai. It was a lively discussion with lots of engagement with the audience who expressed their concerns about the negative impact of media’s images of women leaders and political candidates, as well as the influence of media’s view of women on the way women are treated everywhere in the world.  

In my remarks (video coming soon), I referenced this research on the harmful effects of gender images in film in 11 countries, including India, which showed a large gender gap in India’s film and television programs. The numbers of women directors, writers and producers in India lag behind many other countries, and women characters still don't reflect the Indian female workforce, which in reality includes women leaders across many sectors of civil society and government. Special thanks to Dr. Stacy Smith, a lead researcher, for providing me with slides on this study to include in my presentation, and for allowing us to share the study with all attendees as part of pre-conference reading.

I also talked about the annual study of the media gender gap conducted by the Women’s Media Center, whose board I chair, and whose mission is to increase the visibility of women in media and the numbers of women in decision-making positions. Finally, I shared research conducted by The Sundance Institute, whose board I also chair, and Women in Film, on the status of women filmmakers, which illuminates institutional bias in favor of male directors in the studio system.

From Awareness to Action

Naming the gender gap in media is the first step, but, of course, it’s not enough; we must go beyond raising awareness of the problem to taking action to solve it. One example of this is SheSource, an online resource that the Women’s Media Center created in the U.S. that links news producers looking for experts to women experts across a broad range of subject areas. SheSource also provides a training program that prepares progressive female voices to be media-ready.

Attendees were enthusiastic about the idea of creating an Indian edition of SheSource, and also about emulating Name It. Change It., a non-partisan project of She Should RunWomen’s Media Center, and Political Parity, which seeks to end sexist coverage of women candidates.

As I told the crowd in Kerala, the most significant change will come when we as women — the world’s most valued media consumers — demand more equal and representative media experiences. We express our power with every click, and every purchase.

I am grateful to the ICGE for deepening my understanding of Kerala, and am left feeling once again that if you want to understand a country’s challenges, as well its best assets, a women’s conference is a lens that few other experiences can provide.

Till next time,

P.S. Follow the discussion about the ICGE on Twitter.

This post was updated on November 23 to share additional detail about the research Dr. Stacy Smith so generously shared and to reference Name It. Change it.