Breaking Patriarchy in the Media: A Reality Check

by Sabin Iqbal and K.M. Seethi

 A few years back, an analysis that appeared in the Harvard Business Review showed that women were grossly underrepresented in the media across the world and that they only appeared “in a quarter of television, radio, and print news.” Quoting a report, a group of Harvard behavioural scientists said that women constituted “a mere 19 % of experts featured in news stories and 37% of reporters telling stories globally.” They studied women’s underrepresentation in the workplace and found that “this gender-imbalanced picture of society can reinforce and perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.” The scholars posed a question: “It is clear that the media must change how it reflects the world – but who can change the media itself?”

While analysing the overall trends in the media, the Harvard scholars also brought in a new experiment within the BBC and pointed out that for “over two years, journalists and producers across the BBC have been tackling the gender representation issue by rethinking whom they put in front of the camera, with the goal of achieving 50:50 gender representation every month.” According to the study, “500 BBC shows and teams have joined the so-called 50:50 Project.” In April 2019, 74% of the English-language programs that had been involved in 50:50 for a year or more reached 50%+ female contributors on their shows. ” They sought to analyse the factors that are critical in shaking up the status quo and improving diversity, equality, and inclusion in organisations such as the BBC. These factors could largely be the lessons that are relevant to a wide spectrum of media in the world today.

Saraswathy Nagarajan

Vakkom Moulavi Memorial and Research Centre (VMMRC), Kerala observed this year’s International Women’s Day with a focal theme, Breaking Patriarchy in the Media: A Reality Check, with two prominent senior women journalists in conversation on a range of issues. Incidentally, one of them, a well-known writer, Sagarika Ghose, was also a prime-time anchor for BBC World on ‘Question Time India.’ Saraswathy Nagarajan, who raised some important questions in her conversation with Ghosh, currently serves as the Deputy Editor of The Hindu. Sagarika Ghose has more than three decades of experience working with The Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook, CNN-IBN, etc. The conversation began with a discussion on the facets of male-domination in the Indian media, where Ghose worked in different environs.

sagarika ghose
Sagarika Ghose

Quoting Mahatma Gandhi—who famously said, “Those who oppose the rise of independent, free-spirited women, also obstruct the rise of free-spirited independent men”—Ghose said that “the pursuit of justice for women is about justice for society, it’s about democratisation in society. Those who work for the emancipation of women, the progress of women, and their rights are those who work for the emancipation of men and society at large.” Ultimately, “the pursuit of women’s liberation is part of a larger democratisation of society,” she said.

Having worked with several media organisations, Ghose said that she has come to the conclusion that “we need to build bridges with men, with a larger society, and not just be confined to women’s only space.” Ghose recalled that when she first joined journalism way back in 1991, she came into “a very patriarchal set up. There was a clear demarcation between what the male workers had to do and what the female workers were expected to do. Women journalists were entrusted with subjects in “softer areas” such as health, environment, etc., while male journalists were given “hard” subjects such as politics, defence, foreign affairs, etc., and women were almost excluded from these areas. However, things have changed tremendously over the years, “Ghose pointed out.

She said an important factor in the transformation of the media came with the advent of television, which began to provide much greater space for women. Though digital media has given ample opportunities for women, the general mindset has to change. “Unless the mindset of people about women in the media has changed, we will continue to face opposition and bullying,” Ghose added. She said cyberbullying and threats to woman-journalists online often cross the limits of decency. Ghose, who was a close friend of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh, who was shot dead in 2017, said Lankesh used to get a number of threats. “We used to rubbish them,” she said, adding that unless authorities take an active interest in cyberbullying of women, woman-journalists cannot work with freedom.”

Speaking on the emerging employment situation in the country, Ghose said that “a large number of women are falling out of work in India and it is a worrying fact. For various reasons, including the post-pandemic situation, more and more women are leaving the workplace.”  She also pointed out that “some of the male editors are wary of employing female journalists since the MeToo incidents and revelations.”

Patronage has brought in some degree of patriarchy, she said, but added that “at least it gives the young girls some space to work.” Unlike their male colleagues’ female journalists, who have a family, have to go back home at the end of the day to take care of ‘home’ while their male colleagues are free to chase the story in many places. However, Ghose said she was fortunate to have worked with supportive male editors like Vinod Mehta and Dilip Padgaonkar, who had encouraged her to ‘go out and do’ her stories. But, she said, when she started out, she was assigned ‘soft’ stories while her male colleagues were given ‘hard’ stories.

Ghose said television and magazines have played an important role in bringing women journalists to the forefront, she said. “Television journalism has given visibility to female reporters, and the newsmagazines gave them opportunities to write long-form pieces,” said Ghose, who has already published two in her trilogy of biographies of Indian prime ministers. Her biographies of Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee are already out. Her novels, The Gin Drinkers and Blind Faith and the nonfiction book, Why I am a Liberal? have attracted readers’ attention.

Ghose, who has won the Best Anchor Award from the Indian Television Academy, said the standard of Indian television journalism has gone down.

“Though conditions for women journalists in newsrooms across the country have improved, patriarchy persists, as a woman has yet to become editor-in-chief of a mainstream media organization.”  There are ‘informal spaces’ which are strictly male bastions, where a woman reporter cannot go in the field reporting,” she said.  In the course of discussion, Ghose said the corporatization of the media has silenced many woman-journalists. She said there is some level of disparity in salaries and incentives between male and female journalists.

Dr K. Ravi Raman, member of Kerala State Planning Board, Prof. V. Mathew Kurian, Joint Director of KN Raj Centre, MG University, and Sabin Iqbal spoke at the function. Dr Shahina Javad proposed the vote of thanks.

Sabin Iqbal is a senior journalist and author of novels: The Cliffhangers (Aleph), and Shamal Days (HarperCollins India)

K.M. Seethi is ICSSR Senior Fellow and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension, Mahatma Gandhi University.

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