Countering common cop-outs for the underrepresentation of women in the news

The reality of women’s underrepresentation in the news media is undeniable. Research from the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) consistently shows women’s underrepresentation as news sources. In Kenyan media coverage of the 2022 election, women comprised only 19% of subject-matter experts. Similarly, ACME’s 2020 report on Ugandan media coverage of public affairs revealed that women were underrepresented in both COVID-19 and general public affairs coverage (23% of sources). These findings align with global studies from organisations like the Global Media Monitoring Project that highlight the persistent silencing of women’s voices in the media.

A small, but important part of the solution to the problem is to debunk myths about women’s ability and willingness to be news sources. So we have compiled the most commonly cited excuses used to explain away the limited representation of women in the news, and we present proposals to counter the claims.

Excuses and counterarguments

Excuse: “Women from certain cultures are not comfortable speaking to the media.
Counterargument: Respect culture, but also challenge stereotypes. Women from all cultures have the right to share their stories. Journalists should overcome cultural barriers by working with organisations and interpreters.

Excuse: Women only want to speak about women’s issues.”
Counterargument: Women are just as capable of providing insights into a wide range of issues as men. Journalists should not make assumptions about what women want to talk about. Instead, they should ask women directly about their areas of expertise and experience.

Excuse: Women are not self-promotional enough.”
Counterargument: This excuse is often used to place the blame for women’s underrepresentation on the women themselves, rather than on the media industry. However, there is no evidence to support the claim that women are less self-promotional than men. It is the responsibility of journalists to seek out and amplify the voices of women experts.

Excuse: “Women are often too self-conscious to speak to journalists.
Counterargument: It is natural for anyone to feel self-conscious when they are being interviewed for the media. However, it is the job of journalists to take time to build rapport with women and make them feel comfortable sharing their stories.

Excuse: We need to prioritise the most authoritative and qualified experts, regardless of gender.
Counterargument: Relying solely on the assumption of male authority excludes qualified women experts who can offer valuable insights and enrich the understanding of complex issues. By actively seeking diverse perspectives, journalists can improve the comprehensiveness and nuance of their reporting, overcoming potential blind spots and biases. Recognising women’s expertise and actively seeking their voices is crucial for a truly inclusive and representative media landscape.

Excuse: “Women are often too busy to be interviewed.
Counterargument: Women are just as busy as men, but they are often not given the same opportunities to be heard. Remember no one owes their time to anyone. Everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to decide how to spend their time. Journalists need to be flexible and willing to work with women’s schedules.

Excuse: “We know we have to include a diversity of voices, but we can’t sacrifice quality for the sake of diversity.”
Counterargument: The notion that diversity and quality are mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy. Diversity is not about quotas or tokenism; it is about recognising that society is made up of diverse individuals with unique contributions to offer.

Excuse: “There are simply not enough female experts in my field.
Counterargument: This excuse is simply not true. There are many ways to reach out to women experts, such as using social media, attending women’s conferences, and working with organisations that connect journalists with women experts.

Excuse: Women’s opinions are not as strong as men’s voices on important topics.”
Counterargument: This stereotype is harmful and untrue. Women are just as capable of providing strong and authoritative commentary as men. Hearing women’s perspectives is essential to understanding the world around us, as they bring valuable insights and perspectives to a wide range of issues, enhancing the quality and relevance of information for audiences.

Excuse: Cultivating women sources is hard and takes too much time.”
Counterargument: Cultivating relationships with sources is an integral part of journalism, and cultivating relationships with women sources is no exception. While this may require additional time and effort to establish these connections, the value of women’s insights and perspectives far outweighs the initial investment.

Excuse: Women are afraid of backlash.
Counterargument: It is understandable that women might be afraid to speak up in the media, especially if they have been subjected to harassment or abuse in the past. However, journalists should not let this fear prevent them from including women’s voices in their coverage. There are many ways to support women who speak up to the media, such as offering to protect their identities or providing them with resources to deal with potential backlash.

Excuse: I have tried to get women to engage with the media, but it is difficult, so I gave up.
Counterargument: Journalists should not give up on trying to include women’s voices in their coverage. There are many resources available to help journalists find and interview women, and there are many women who are eager to share their stories. Journalists should be persistent and resourceful, and they should not give up on their efforts to include women’s voices in the media.

Excuse:This diversity agenda is driven by external forces and doesn’t resonate with our audience’s preferences or needs.
Counterargument: While audience preferences are important, journalism’s core responsibility lies in accurately reflecting the world as it is, not simply catering to pre-existing biases or comfort zones. Diversity is not an “agenda” but a fundamental aspect of reality itself. Furthermore, audiences are not monolithic. Assuming a static preference for homogeneity ignores the diverse interests and needs within any population. To truly serve our audience, we must strive for accuracy and inclusivity, ensuring that the stories we tell represent the world in its entirety, not just a selective fragment.

ACME Mwalimu

The African Centre for Media Excellence's training unit, known as ACME Mwalimu, scours news platforms and online resources to curate the best training tips and resources for journalists and media organisations, empowering them to become impactful contributors to public debate and development. If you have a training tip or question, you can reach out to ACME Mwalimu at training[at]acme-ug.org.

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