This commentary is part of The Globe's series, Work In Progress: The global struggle for gender parity.
Shari Graydon is the founder of Informed Opinions and ExpertWomen.ca, projects of Media Action aimed at increasing women's voices in the news media.
Women were dying to get into the headlines – literally. It was 1993, and Media Action was reviewing research documenting the ratio of male and female voices in Canadian media. Seeing that our annual study showed a slight increase in the previously stalled tally of female newsmakers (up to 22 per cent, from 19 per cent the previous year), we were momentarily excited.
But closer analysis revealed that the uptick was entirely due to the number of female murder victims who happened to be in the headlines during the period studied. We abandoned the yearly count in disgust.
Last fall, however, inspired by the growing appreciation of the benefits of diversity in public discourse, we updated the research. We were emboldened by conversations that now regularly happen in newsrooms, at conferences and online, about all-white-male panels being a shameful failure of imagination. Moreover, having spent five years successfully encouraging diverse expert women to share their knowledge with the media, we expected the results to be different.
And they were – to a point. The independent analysis looked at three weeks' worth of news stories from publications and programs with high audience numbers and national reach, covering 1,467 articles and broadcast segments from seven major Canadian media outlets – The Globe and Mail; the Toronto Star; the National Post; La Presse; CTV's National News, CBC's The Current and Radio-Canada's Tout le monde en parle.
The results revealed that, more than two decades after our earlier research, the ratio of women's voices had inched up seven points, to 29 per cent.
At a time when women are still being hounded off Twitter by rape threats, the increase is welcome. Some of it is no doubt explained by the fact that that half the new federal cabinet are women, as are the premiers of three of the biggest provinces. But women also make up 60 per cent of all university graduates, head many private and public organizations, and dominate a host of health and social services professions. So we should be doing better.
We're not alone in thinking so. A recent U.K. report, which assessed more than two million articles from 950 news outlets, documented women's presence at less than 30 per cent. Discouragingly, the study authors noted that women's appearances in the news often qualified as "eye candy." effectively undermining audiences's capacity to attribute credibility and authority to other female newsmakers.
Adrienne LaFrance, a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine, recently reviewed a year of her reporting to assess how often she quoted or mentioned women. In confessing her failure to do no better than a 25 per cent female/75 per cent male ratio, she acknowledged that articles about politics, Silicon Valley and the military are bound to feature more male sources. But she also suggested another way to view the imbalance:
"Women represent about half the global population, and yet they're dramatically underrepresented in stories meant to help people understand much of the complexity in the world. … By substantially under-representing an entire gender, I'm missing out on all kinds of viewpoints, ideas and experiences that might otherwise sharpen and enhance my reporting."
Our research did reveal some cause for optimism. Several of the news outlets monitored did considerably better than others in sourcing female experts and incorporating women's perspectives. Not surprisingly, they tended to be organizations that track their own diversity statistics. Apparently, when journalists know numbers will be reviewed and performance assessed, they get better at finding alternate sources, broadening their definition of news and covering issues in a more inclusive way.
The media's crucial role in disseminating information and analysis that feeds democratic decision making is explicitly recognized in Canada's Broadcasting Act; it stipulates that programming should "serve the needs and interests and reflect the circumstances and aspirations of Canadian men, women and children, including equal rights …"
Making good on that ideal has never been easier. Thousands of women across this country in a wide range of fields are knowledgeable enough to offer insight and analysis. And we're in the process of creating an accessible, online tool that will make it easier for journalists and others to find them.
Three years from now, when we replicate the research, we'd like the updated data to render us obsolete.