Africa Media Festival Reflections: Mainstreaming gender in the newsroom.
The year 2020 was a watershed year for both women in the news, and the world in general, as COVID-19 took over news headlines.
As countries enforced movement restrictions, lockdowns and quarantines, there was a related, marked increase in domestic violence and gender assault cases worldwide. In Kenya, the National Crime Research Centre reported a 42% increase in gender-based violence cases between the months of March, when Kenya announced its countrywide lockdown, and June that year. In South Africa, there was a 37% increase in calls to the country’s domestic violence hotline in the first week of its nationwide quarantine.
Women bore the brunt of the economic and emotional impact of the pandemic; however, while women represent 46% of healthcare specialists worldwide, only 27% of COVID-19 stories featured their input. Women represent 52% of the Kenyan population, but news reportage is still dominated by men.
It is against this background the Africa Media Festival hosted a panel discussion titled ‘Mainstreaming gender in the media’. The discussion was moderated by Sammy Muraya, project manager for Journalists For Human Rights (JHR), which trains and empowers journalists to adequately cover human rights stories.
Gender inclusion in the news has been a pertinent issue for decades but despite numerous resolutions and policies to mainstream gender in media, women are still underrepresented, both as news sources and as story subjects.
The 2020 Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) report, which keeps track of how gender diversity is implemented in the news and is compiled and released every five years, showed that only 24% of news stories focused on women, and only 19% of stories featured women as experts and commentators.
Mr Muraya and his colleague Winnie Syombua, gender lead at JHR, started the discussion with a short presentation on why it is important to mainstream gender in the newsroom in order to mainstream gender in the news. “We need more women in leadership roles in the newsroom, but yet, very few make it out of the ‘soft stories’ category,” he pointed out. Women in positions of influence in media organisations have the ability to change the way women are reported, and to add the female perspective to subjects of national importance.
“The majority of students enrolling for journalism classes are women, and many even go on to join a newsroom, but there are very few women in newsroom leadership. Why do we have these gaps? Why are so many women leaving the newsroom?” Mr Muraya posed.
In 2021, JHR invited women to a discussion to establish the reasons why many are abandoning media jobs quite early in their careers; they found that one of the key inhibitors was sexual harassment.
“The women (who participated in the workshop) could see how they had been violated. Some even said they have told their daughters not to take up journalism,” he said.
As a result of their findings, JHR, in collaboration with the Association of Media Women In Kenya (AMWIK) and other stakeholders, has designed a model sexual harassment policy that media houses can adopt and edit according their particular needs.
Lilian Museka, a panelist and programmes officer at AMWIK, elaborated on how the organisation is supporting victims of newsroom sexual harassment. “We have set up a psychosocial support pilot project, because one of the areas of the impact of harassment is mental health. We currently have about 15 journalists going through this programme,” she said. “Another area of focus is how to approach legal redress in case they want to pursue it. We have made strides. We’re not yet there, but we are on the right path.”
Very often, the victim-shaming and embarrassment is enough to stop all other victims from reporting their own cases, and rarely are perpetrators given more than a slap on the wrist. There is also the complicated manner in which evidence of sexual harassment is collected, submitted and adjudicated, and a lack of knowledge of exactly what constitutes sexual harassment.
“The two organisations are also working with media houses to ensure inhouse policies promote gender equality and also give women a chance to grow in their careers,” Mr Muraya said.
Panelist Eric Oduor, who is the Secretary-General of the Kenya Union of Journalists, spoke about the importance of gender inclusion in the media reporting landscape, reiterating the fact that there’s a very high attrition rate for women journalists beyond college. “We’ve made newsrooms very harsh [for women]. It is important to correct this in order to ensure women’s voices are sought and heard in the media. Women are more likely to accurately reflect what other women are going through,” he continued.
Mr Muraya added: “It is important to seek the gender angle in reporting on different thematic areas, because issues such as climate change and economics affect women in different ways than they affect men.”
“The first animal to tackle is sexual harassment. How do we domesticate Convention C190?” Mr Oduor posed. Convention C190 is an international treaty that seeks to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. “Not all media houses have the capacity to develop sexual harassment policies,” he pointed out, “and so we now have a modern sexual harassment policy that smaller media outfits can adopt and use.”
Currently, most media houses – more so the bigger ones that can afford the cost – have established gender desks to ensure women’s voices and issues are featured beyond the objectification and sexualisation that we see on many platforms.
All these desks are led by women, which brings into focus the fact that media consumers have synonymised the word ‘gender’ with ‘female’. And yet, gender goes way beyond this simple definition. There is an utter lack of representation of, for example, gender-queer or gender-fluid voices in news products. Because of this public information and advocacy gap, genders that do not conform to the narrow, binary male-female definitions are misunderstood, shamed and bullied.
“How should we tell the gender story?” Mr Muraya posed. “Even reminding men they belong to a gender is a problem. When you’re told there’s a gender desk, people think it only deals with women’s issues.”
Rachel Nakitare, deputy head of TV at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told the audience how the national broadcaster is working to ensure gender parity in its management, personnel and content.
“We have come up with a gender mainstreaming committee,” she said, pointing out a crucial point regarding sexual harassment and its relationship with gender parity in the media: “Sexual harassment cannot be a part of the gender mainstreaming conversation. We need to set it aside as its own issue.”
This is what the KBC management team did, commissioning research to benchmark gender mainstreaming in other public broadcast organisations. “We were intentional about gender mainstreaming, and so we reached out to JHR to help us design and implement the necessary policies. We also realised there is a need for affirmative action in order to ensure gender parity in the newsroom,” she said.
“It surprises many that KBC has all those policies,” she said. It might seem like “overkill”, she said but these policies should work together to ensure not just the safety of female journalists in the workplace, but also access to opportunities to get promoted into positions of influence where they can work to bring even more women into the newsroom and mentor them through the early stages of their careers.
Finally, there is a role that men can and must play to bring more women into the media workspace. “We need more men to come on board and understand the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace. These include the loss of revenue and skills,” Mr Muraya said. Gender parity is not for the sake of it; workplace diversity, and the varied perspectives it brings to the content production process, plays an important role in driving business and content strategies which then help media organisations reach new groups of consumers and convert them into super fans.
However, in a society as patriarchal as Kenya, some conversations are best led by men in order for other men to pay attention. And so more male allies need to join their female counterparts and speak directly to their fellow men about the importance of uplifting female journalists and keeping them safe, in order for the media to finally realise gender equality in the media workspace, and make gender mainstreaming the norm rather than the exception.
By: Wayua Muli