Analysis: Media industry still beset by sexism
May 24, 2021
by Angharad Rhiannon
Nearly four years on from the genesis of the #MeToo movement, the media industry is still beset with instances of sexist, inappropriate and discriminatory behaviour, with a range of organisations and individuals lending their weight and voices to calls for reform.
On October 15th 2017, actor Alyssa Milano wrote: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. By the following day, it had been retweeted 500,000 times and on Facebook, the hashtag was used by 4.7 million people across 12 million posts within 24 hours.
In February 2019, actor Emma Thompson pulled out of the animated feature film Luck because Skydance Media had hired John Lasseter, a man accused of harassing women while at Disney. “If a man has been touching women inappropriately for decades, why would a woman want to work for him if the only reason he’s not touching them inappropriately now is that it says in his contract that he must behave ‘professionally’, asks Thompson.
The skeletons in closets continue to be exposed in 2021, with actor-director Noel Clarke being accused by 20 women in April 2021 of inappropriate behaviour and bullying, and BAFTA being forced to confess it was aware of the allegations prior to presenting him with an award. In May 2021, Little Mix shouted out sexism at the Brit Awards, while the combined voices of Scarlett Johansson, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos and Amazon Studios’ Jennifer Salke joined the criticism of film industry group the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for sexism and racism. According to Johansson, participating in the HFPA’s press conferences and award shows “has often meant facing sexist questions and remarks by certain HFPA members that bordered on sexual harassment”.
Such issues are certainly not new. Hearing how Judy Garland was sexually assaulted at 16 years of age on the set of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, is as shocking today as hearing Thandie Newton’s story of how a director not only upskirted her, but showed the film at parties.
All of this begs the question: just how sexist is the media industry, what forms do sexism take and how can it be reformed?
Female representation within the industry is a key concern. According to McKinsey’s ‘Breaking the Glass Screen’ research, while women are well represented in media and entertainment companies, that’s not the case at senior levels. Only 27 per cent of C-level positions are held by women and half of respondents to the study said they believed that women are judged by different standards to men.
The Council of Europe says this inequality is reflected in coverage – both in terms of the type of topics covered and how they are covered. In Europe, three-quarters of the people heard, read about and seen in the news are male, women are rarely featured in an expert capacity, violence against women is sensationalised both in news and fiction, and gender stereotypes persist.
Participation is further threatened by how women in the media industry are treated by their peers and by wider society. UNESCO’s damning April 2021 report , The Chilling: Global Trends in Online Violence Against Women Journalists, outlined how female journalists were being subjected to threats of sexual and physical violence, harassing private messages, coordinated ‘dog-pile’ attacks, hacking, ‘doxxing’, misrepresentation through spoof accounts, manipulated or fake content, and flooding of search results with false content to drown out their work.
“Online violence against women journalists is designed to belittle, humiliate, and shame; induce fear, silence, and retreat; discredit them professionally, undermining accountability, journalism and trust in facts,” the report said. The aim, as well as the ultimate effect of this behaviour, is to freeze women out of public debate.
How women are portrayed in the media is also problematic. In the US, the announcement that Kamala Harris was to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee unleashed a sexist media tsunami. According to Time’s Up, 25 per cent of coverage “included racist and sexist stereotyping and tropes”, while 61 per cent of Harris’s coverage mentioned her gender and race only 5 per cent of Tim Kaine’s and Mike Pence’s did.
In early 2021, the UK government was forced to withdraw a ‘Stay At Home’ advertisement after extensive criticism on social media. The ad, which was part of the government’s Covid-19 health information campaign, featured women doing housework and looking after children, while the only man was portrayed as sitting on a sofa watching television.
Outrage at how women are being portrayed is not limited to the West. In early 2021, there was an outcry in China about a video ad by make-up remover company PurCotton, which showed a young woman being stalked by a man. Her response was to take out her cleansing wipes and remove her make-up. This immediately scared off the attacker. Outraged by the message, Chinese Internet users took to social media to condemn it. The company was forced to apologise, remove the video from social media sites and reflect on its mistakes.
In Australia, a KFC video featuring a woman in a low-cut top who pushes up her chest as two young boys ogle her created such a vociferous backlash that KFC were forced to withdraw it and apologise. Abhik Roy, professor of marketing at Quinnipiac University, told the New York Times that this would not have happened 15 years ago. “[KFC apologised] because of social media pressure”.
In fact, the UN has had the media industry on its radar for some time. Gender equality and women’s rights are Goal 5 in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as being a pre-requisite for achieving other goals, such as addressing climate change, poverty and inequality. Back in 2016, it launched the UN Women Media Compact, inviting select media partners to play their part by disrupting stereotypes and biases in their reporting and increasing the number of women in the media, including in vital leadership and decision-making functions.
openDemocracy, an independent media platform that covers world affairs, ideas and culture is the latest media organisation to join, adding to the likes of Deutsche Welle, France24, Glamour, the Huffington Post, Marie Claire, Politico, as well as other regional organisations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Claire Provost, openDemocracy’s Head of Global Investigations and founder of the Tracking the Backlash project, which investigates organised opposition to women’s and LGBTIQ rights, notes that its “groundbreaking feminist investigative journalism has had major impact – including on the media and policy debates internationally”.
The authors of the UNESCO report meanwhile point out that while social media provides a platform for women to protest, it is also part of the problem and that the platforms themselves have done too little to deal with attacks against female journalists or women in general, requiring women to defend themselves. “They [the women] are the ones required to ‘report’, ‘block’, ‘mute’, ‘delete’, and ‘restrict’ their attackers, potentially compounding the effects of the abuse, and creating unbearable pressures when the attacks come at scale,” the report said.
Eleanor Mills, former Sunday Times journalist and editor-in-chief of women’s support community Noon, explains why tackling diversity issue in media begins with tackling it within media organisations themselves. “When I started on the Sunday Times, I was often the only woman in the conferences where the news agenda was decided. Twenty male eyes would look at me asking, ‘What do women think about this?’”
Attempts to make the film industry more supportive and less exploitative are also underway. Nudity is being questioned, and women offered professional chaperones who advise on protecting their modesty and shield them from inappropriate male attention and uncomfortable situations. Directors UK has issued guidelines which are supported by BAFTA, the BFI and the Casting Directors’ Guild that ban full nudity in any audition or call back, and require prior notification of requests for semi-nudity to the actor and their agent, as well as written consent for filming an actor nude or semi-naked.
Marisa Reich, writing in SportsPro, presents a stark picture of gender bias in sports reporting: 90 per cent of sports editors, 88.5 per cent of sports reporters, 83.4 per cent of columnists, 79.6 per cent of copy editors and designers, and 69.9 per cent of assistant sports editors are men. In contrast, 51 per cent of women are sports fans, 35 per cent of major US league fans are female and in Europe – depending on the sport and country – the range of female fans is between 20 and 50 per cent. She asks if any industry can afford to ignore such a large proportion of its customers and is clear that this is a big problem: “In the end, we must remember that the media tells our society what is important and who matters. The public consumes and sees what is presented to them. If it is only men who report about sports and only men’s sport is shown, society gets the impression that women do not belong to the cultural system of sports and society at large,” she notes.
Combatting the problem, she says, is difficult because it is often not apparent to the men who dominate the media industry. Calling out the invisible social networks of male friendships that promote from within and cover up toxic behaviours, she points out that “allegiances trump excellence”, which all too often creates mediocrity. The rewards for getting it right, she argues, is increased creativity, better products, reduced employee turnover, greater profits and better decision making. “Do we dare to miss out on these positive effects to uphold a toxic system?” she asks.