Marginalization of Women in the Media: What the United Nations Should Do

By Gill, Sonia | UN Chronicle, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Marginalization of Women in the Media: What the United Nations Should Do


Gill, Sonia, UN Chronicle


The media, as an important agent of socialization in the modern world, either support or contest cultural conceptions, and have a significant impact on the social construction of gender. The media's effects operate at the level of gender belief systems, affecting individual "beliefs and opinions about males and females, and about the purported qualities of masculinity and femininity". (1)

The mass media have been found to play a critical role in maintaining the gender-power imbalance, "passing on dominant, patriarchal/sexist values". (2) But such a situation is not inherent in the nature of media. They can instead be agents of development and progress if guided by clear, socially relevant policies. Their hoped-for positive contribution to women's advancement will only take place in the context of a framework that clearly defines policy objectives, maps out actions and decisions which comprise the particular policy, defines the minimum standards to be met by all participants in the process, and provides mechanisms for assessing progress towards policy objectives.

The United Nations is ideally placed to assist various types of institutions to establish the policy frameworks needed to prevent the marginalization of women in the media. This will have to begin at the most fundamental level, in the sense that there is a dearth of policies in existence. This is true whether the media policy exists at the State level in the form of legislation and institutional arrangements, or at the level of media organizations' operational policies and systems, or even of professional associations' and groupings' codes of practice and accepted guidelines.

There must be serious groundwork for building relevant policies through consultation and collaboration with those responsible for policy formulation and implementation. There is a need to ensure the involvement of policy makers in the formulation of strategies for the greater participation and access of women to the media. Too often, the discussion about the absence of necessary policies takes place in the absence of legislators, regulators, State administrators. managers and front-line professionals--the policy makers themselves. The United Nations can bring together these policy makers in literal and virtual fora, which can provide an opportunity for discussion and development.

Such groupings should be targeted as part of the effort to place gender-fairness and the use of the media for the advancement of women on the global agenda. Race, class and gender are the main axes of "social differentiation," (3) with gender being the most recently recognized perspective for academic investigation, including policy studies. However, gender still receives little recognition in the analysis and formulation of all types of policy, particularly at the State level. Because of the economic hardships suffered by many developing countries in the 1970s and 1980s, Governments had to change their development focuses and State policies in order to redress the shortage of foreign exchange available to service debts. But structural adjustment policies redirected "resources away from programmes which are people-centred to those which are profit-centred". (4)

Women were hit hardest by the redirection of resources made necessary by structural adjustment. Therefore, as in other areas of policy, it is useful to conduct gender-focused analyses of what impact there has been on the "process of creating, allocating and using communication resources ... to achieve the goals of the system".

In response to the absence of gender from the majority of policy-making in all areas, including communication and media policy, the United Nations can help bring focus to the development of mechanisms for mainstreaming gender within the policy-making process. The engine for such activity is the national civil society organizations, whose mandate includes lobbying and monitoring existing policy-making centres. …

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