Women of colour are suffering from a “culture of exclusion” that is seeing them passed over for the top jobs in media organisations and written out of the stories those outlets cover, a report has found.
In an unprecedented analysis of newsrooms and news stories from six countries – the UK, Nigeria, India, South Africa, Kenya and the US – women of all backgrounds were found to be significantly underrepresented in editorial leadership roles and in coverage.
For every woman who was an editor-in-chief, the analysis found, there were at least two – and in some places as many as 12 – men at the same level. But the challenges facing women of colour in racially diverse countries, such as South Africa, the UK and the US, were even greater, the report concluded. In Britain, where 37% of the media organisations surveyed, including the Guardian, had a female editor-in-chief, only 1% had a woman of colour at the helm.
“For me, this was by far the most arresting, upsetting and important finding to act upon urgently,” said Luba Kassova, the author of the report entitled From Outrage to Opportunity: How to Include the Missing Perspectives of Women of All Colors in News Leadership and Coverage.
Women of colour faced multiple barriers to equality in the newsroom, she added, and were often “expected to resolve the problem of their own underrepresentation and inclusion”.
The report, which analysed the workforce of 76 UK news brands, found there were no women of colour occupying the most senior editorial positions in politics, foreign affairs, and health news. Women of colour were more marginalised in news leadership in the UK than in South Africa or the US, the report found.
“Compared to their proportion in the UK working population, and compared to the US and South Africa, women of colour are severely underrepresented or altogether missing from editorial roles in the UK,” the report said. “Moreover women of colour are experiencing extraordinary levels of exclusion and remain invisible within news organisations and the news industry, as leaders and as protagonists in news stories.”
Levels of female representation in Kenya, Nigeria and, in particular, India, were often startlingly low. The report found that women were more marginalised in news leadership and in coverage in India than in the other five countries, with only one in 10 editors-in-chief, one in seven business editors and one in five political editors women.
In Kenya, while nearly one in five editors-in-chief and nearly a third of business editors are women, there were no women at the helm of the politics beat in any of the media organisations surveyed; and in Nigeria 18% of editors-in-chief and 16% of political editors were female.
The report found that interviewees in all countries believed the “maternal wall” – the barrier facing all women who have children – to be a factor in the stymying of career advancement. The colleague of one interviewee was told by a male editor that she had impressive journalistic credentials, adding: “Just make sure you leave your womb at the door.”
One of the knock-on effects of this culture of exclusion is women’s declining news consumption, which the report’s authors estimate is about 11-12% lower than men’s. In its analysis of more than 900m online news stories, it found there was a “huge” absence of coverage of structural gaps disproportionately affecting women, such as pay and health disparities.
Between 2017 and April 2022, less than one in 5,000 news stories globally featured any reference to these issues. Global news coverage of gender equality issues had declined from 0.56% before the Covid-19 pandemic to 0.44% since.
Kassova said that although there was “no silver bullet” media organisations could make a real difference by conducting gender and race disparity audits; setting targets, possibly relatively moderate ones, to improve representation; and committing to broadening coverage.
As well as the moral imperative, there is a significant financial incentive, according to the report’s authors. If the global news industry, creaking under the pressure of declining newspaper sales, was able to reduce the gender news consumption gap by just one percentage point a year over the next decade, it would generate additional cumulative revenues of $11bn (£9bn) by 2027 and $38bn by 2032, they say.
Kassova said that when making the case for greater female representation in media companies she had often been met with a counter-argument focusing on the risk posed to men’s employment by the hiring of more top-level women.
“The answer to this is that women are a lifeline,” she said. “And by engaging them through the whole news value chain better – and thus increasing female audiences – this will reduce revenue loss and … men in leading organisations … are less likely to lose their jobs rather than more likely to lose them.”
The report was prepared by the consultancy AKAS and was commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.