Patricia Andago: Big dick politics and how Kenyan news fails women

This post is a collaboration between Odipo Dev and Baraza Media Lab.

Take a moment to think about what a typical Kenyan news consumer looks like. You’re probably picturing a man, walking around with a newspaper under his armpit, jumping at every chance to “discuss politics”. Or a father in the home, reading the paper in the living room with the radio blaring in the background, and everyone else falling silent when the 9pm news comes on.

It’s very rare that you find that such a caricature will involve a woman. The traditional print news media model revolves around this very idea, and this stereotype tells us a lot about the nature of news consumption in Kenya. Decisions around when and whether to engage in the news are viewed through a gendered lens. News is for men. News is made by men. News mostly consists of men. 

We have the data to  illustrate our points. Throughout 2020 we polled 4,000 consumers on their media consumption habits asking questions about how they interacted (or didn’t) with the news media. In addition to the survey we also sat down with 25 women in both rural and urban Kenya to talk to them about the news, their attitudes towards it, and how much impact it has on their lives.

Our data reflected an interesting yet recurring phenomenon: despite the increased urgency of the news, women lagged behind in terms of news consumption (which we define as the typical reporting as served by Kenyan newsrooms on politics, economics, and to a lesser extent – international affairs and ‘human interest’ stories). Additionally, they were more likely to report being avoiders of the news media at a rate of 53 percentage points higher than men. Given how important news is to our young democracy and consumer economy, these differences in news consumption have important implications that deserve a further deep dive.

This includes those who tune in and out of the news, sometimes in search of ‘something better to watch’ 

Where are the women?

Women hardly ever speak in Kenyan news, especially when it comes to governance and politics stories, which the Kenyan media almost always lead with. Seven out of ten times, men are protagonists in news headlines, and women are quoted eight times less frequently than men in ‘political’ stories.

Women who run media companies

The mere fact that news is a male-oriented industry is likely to affect the topics that are considered “newsworthy”. This is especially the case given our country’s deeply fortified journalistic norms that demand heavy coverage of the most powerful circles in business and politics which in general are considered to be masculine domains. 

Joan Thatiah, a renowned Kenyan author and journalist told us that her work desk was often referred to as “desk ya wamama” (disparagingly, as “the women’s desk”), where “women’s stories”, not news, would be written. She says that news is taken to be synonymous with intrigue among the political elite, such as with the ongoing Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Joan tells us that she had to face the harsh reality that the highest rank she could attain in print media was the managing editor of a pull-out for women. 

The gender differences in interest were also consistent in each of our focus groups. One woman, Caro, during our interview referred to her husband as “mwenye news kwa nyumba” (the owner of news in our home) and added that she found the news “too serious”.  In their personal experience the political news was a bigger interest to their men in their lives, suggesting the gendered fashion in which Kenyan society regards the news. But this disengagement is also internalized as a failure by women themselves –  our study participants criticized their own ability to keep up, some said they had been shamed for their inability to engage in political conversations.

The second shift

Social and structural inequalities also shape everyday media consumption habits. The most significant of which we identified is the gendered division of time – in the form of physical and emotional labor and responsibilities, which fall predominantly on women. The news needs time and the lack of it shapes its consumption. “We all have the same 24 hours,” it is often said, but the truth is that men and women interact with these “same” 24 hours very differently at a very fundamental level. 

At 7pm, most women are either preparing dinner for their families or cleaning up after evening meals. Some women admitted to missing the 9pm news – even if they might have wanted to watch –  because they have to get their children to sleep, or have some other outstanding task to complete before the end of the day. Are women actually not interested in the news, or is the news placed during a time when domestic duties are still prevalent and men are home unwinding from a day of work? 

In any case, the news timings are more geared towards when men are at home and settled, which is an indicator of whose convenience is prioritized in news scheduling. This is evident in the data on news avoidance we showed above. We have to consider news avoidance as it intersects with gender dynamics. These gendered roles are shaped in the home from an early age and are reinforced among peers. Any attempt to close this gap in consumption without addressing this ingrained lurking issue is likely to fail. 

A question of power

The underrepresentation of women in politics, political journalism and newsrooms in general sends the message that politics is often not about or for them. Just 8.1% of media houses are run by women, and it is thus apparent that most media houses are led by men. The implication is that these men then set the agenda on which kind of news is important and which is not, meaning that important perspectives from women are at best considered, but have to gain buy-in from the men. 

This means that news will be biased towards issues that these men deem important, which is often politics, economics and international “hard-hitting” news. This translates in their coverage which ends up excluding interests of female audiences or relegates them to pull-outs and fewer resources to expound on themes that may interest women. The question then becomes, where is the political benefit to them from being informed about politics by consuming the news? The women we talked to said that news is not a priority to them. They didn’t feel like they needed it in the course of their everyday life, in short, they have better things to do. This indifference towards news, spirals into a general disinterest and minimal participation in civic and political life. 

Data from the National Democratic Institute shows that women make up an average of only 6% of elected seats in the country.  It is therefore no surprise that they have no interest in this type of news. One woman in the focus group mentioned that aside from news on the Covid-19 pandemic, in the past year the news rarely gave her anything she could use in her daily life. Many times in fact, it gave her a lot of negative emotions. “All we see is corruption scandals and murder.” Sentiments like these explain why we are seeing a rising tide of consumers trying to insulate their homes from the news. Contrast this idea of insulation of the home from the news with how bars/ pubs, a largely masculine domain, will regularly switch from football, the DJ music set or whatever else they might be playing to play the news at 7pm and 9pm. News is an occasion that men are more likely to participate in and bond over, particularly because it was curated by other men.

All this results in what is perhaps the most important dynamic in the relationship between audiences and the news industry: trust and monetization. As news outlets begin to put paywalls on their sites in search of ever elusive digital revenue, the pre-existing digital divide is set to widen, or experience a clear segmentation. Other studies have highlighted huge gender gaps in smartphone penetration and regular internet access. Our survey pointed further towards how this disparity is likely to grow.  In the past three months, more men (by 20 percentage points) paid for the news than women.  

Where women are

Women are more likely to follow stories about health and wellness, weather, religion, family and relationships, investment opportunities, and crime stories. A quick skim through the group media of my women-only Whatsapp groups gives a clear indication of this. We have shared stories about career women climbing up the corporate ladder with each other, business opportunities, Covid-19 concerns, and trending tweets like the recent, hilarious #LetsTalkSausages Farmers’ Choice ads. We have expressed deep concern for stories involving children being harmed or kidnapped,  the current state of schools in the country as well as that story of the son who killed his entire family. Discussions on politics, international affairs and economics get very minimal, if any, engagement on these WhatsApp groups.

How is the news media going to get female audiences to pay for the news? There are no easy answers here and the solutions Kenyan media has traditionally gone to don’t address the problem of the structural inequalities shaping media consumption habits. Traditional newsroom innovations like weekend pullout magazines take the “Shrink it and Pink it” approach that has been seen to fail time and again in terms of product development for women. Getting female audiences to trust and pay for news at similar levels to men requires a balance in power and a reset of the news agenda. Women could be a great untapped audience for certain types of news. Due to the structural differences in society, they approach news differently. Our data shows they are more likely to turn to news in search of more practical information, preferring stories that touch on health, education, housing and food and are less interested than men in the intrigues of political drama.

One interesting way we’re seeing audiences adapt to this gendered and structural inequality  is the rise of influencers. We have long explored the idea of influencers being some kind of answer to the gaps within our media environment, even going so far as to compare their digital engagement alongside news outlets. If you asked a lady on the street where she gets advice on health, fashion, or maternity, chances are she will not say she picks the pull out of a weekend newspaper, or logs on to either one of the websites of the big four media houses to find out about this. Our guess is that she would point to some alternative, frequently digital, space that is embedded in her social networks of family and friends.

What this means for advertisers – and society

In light of all the above, the implications for advertisers, for example, are clear. There is a real question of whether news slots are the right places in your media mix in order to develop meaningful connections with female consumers. They however, certainly will deliver the goods with male audiences, especially older men. One thing that is for sure is that many advertisers are more excited about the partnerships they can develop with influencers as opposed to traditional media. They provide a more dynamic and diverse opportunity to engage and develop connections with  audiences, and their share of the pie is only set to grow. 

From our landscape it also looks like there is room for female influencers to begin to occupy the space that the news once occupied for large swathes of audiences and also begin to address those beyond Nairobi. There is potential for them to engage with their female audience’s concerns and maybe one day reset the news agenda while monetizing their audiences. However, using influencers on social media would need its own form of oversight as in many markets, including ours, they are a huge contributor to social media’s misinformation problem. 

Ultimately, the media is a prism through which society sees itself, responsible for creating and mediating the public square and our idea of public or civic life. If a huge percentage of our society is excluded from what is deemed most important by our dominant news media, women’s ideas and interests will be trivialised, and the development of women’s democratic and human rights amongst current and future generations will be slow.

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