Women strongly under-represented in British broadcast media

Recent research in Journalism Practice has revealed a steady disparity between the numbers of male and female experts on British flagship TV and radio news. Despite a prevalence of female authority figures in Britain, authors Lis Howell and Jane B. Singer found that women were outnumbered by four to one.

The authors sought to understand the inequity by studying how experts were recruited for programmes, to better understand what defines an ‘expert’. The journalists interviewed noted the importance of status; experts were valued for their position in business, government or society, and for their ability to speak with confidence and credibility on air. Yet, as the authors highlighted, men continue to be more closely associated with these characteristics than women. As a Global Media Monitoring researcher study recently concluded, ‘women’s voices, experiences and expertise continue to be regarded by news industries as less important than those of men’. Hence women are persistently under-represented as ‘hard news’ reporters, more commonly connected to ‘soft topics’ such as health and lifestyle, and confined to less important lunchtime news broadcasts.

In attempting to explain the reasoning behind this, one male producer cited a ‘male-dominated public life’. The authors also uncovered a hesitancy among many women to commit to appearances in the media. Many journalists felt that women experts feared disapproval on controversial topics or being negatively judged as arrogant, pushy or unattractive. One female academic stated ‘academia often frowns on those who appear in the media’. Despite often being very well qualified, women are often reticent to be the most authoritative voice on a subject, needing reassurance before committing. This made producers’ drive to recruit female experts, and therefore offset the typical ‘white, over 40 man-in-tie’ expert, all the more difficult.

With an overwhelming lack of women in top roles, Howell & Singer call for greater attention to the issue, concluding ‘achieving greater gender parity across broadcast news requires a conscious and concerted effort informed by a deeper understanding of the nature of the problem and why it persists’.