Need for bigger role for women in media

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On 17 April 1954 the women of South Africa made their voices heard through the Women’s Charter which strived for the removal of all laws, regulations, conventions and customs that discriminate against them.

The Charter made this poignant observation: “The level of civilisation which any society has reached can be measured by the degree of freedom that its members enjoy. The status of women is a test to civilisation.”

This event and the iconic 1956 Women’s March transpired at a time when local newsrooms were mostly white and male dominated. Therefore, it is doubtful that these momentous occasions received the media attention they deserved.

Since then, the country has come a long way. Today women enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts in relation to education, employment, property, inheritance and justice.

As the face of South Africa changed over the past 20 Years, women started to take their rightful place in Parliament, Cabinet, business and civil society. However, media were slow to follow suit.

Last year August, Media Tenor SA released its “A Woman in a Man’s World” report that highlighted the perennial problem of women’s voices being underrepresented in the media. It found that women were portrayed “less empowering light”. 

Many might blame the gender transformation of newsroom for these poor results.  However,  the “State of the Newsroom South Africa 2013” report released by Wits University’s Journalism Department, states that the transformation of newsrooms have been significant.

The 2012-2013 findings from the nine newsrooms surveyed – CNBC Africa, EWN, City Press, Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Beeld, SABC, The Witness, and Sowetan - indicated that the 61 percent of journalists were black and there were near gender equality with 49 percent being women.   

With regard to the editors, the gender split was 55 percent male and 45 per cent female. However, the picture changes when one looks beyond these nine newsrooms. 

The Wits report quotes Peta Krost Maunder from The Media who had found that only 31 percent of main commercial newspaper editors were female. The Media also found that gender transformation at magazines was lagging far behind newspapers with very few black female editors. 

Another hurdle for gender equality is at the top management of media houses where strategy is decided. Primedia Broadcasting chief executive Terry Volkwyn said the unequal representation in management and on boards of media houses means “issues championed by women and brought to the table are shoved aside”.

To avoid this, gender transformation at all levels in media houses is critical. Women make up 51.3 percent of the population, therefore issues affecting women should not be pushed into a so-called “women’s supplement” or the “women’s pages”. The stereotype that it is the responsibility of women’s magazines to cover women’s issues should be challenged. 

It is critical that strong female voices break through the clutter as too often only male experts are quoted in media.

This is crucial in a society where we strive for gender equality and encourage the girl child to consider further studies in traditionally male-dominated field such as science, technology, engineering and construction. It is important for young women to hear strong and thought leader female voices who can serve as role models and instill in them the confidence that they can reach the top of any field.

Although gender transformation in media is an ongoing process, we as the descendants of those from the Women’s Charter and 1956 March should never feel voiceless. We are empowered by social media and can broadcast our messages across the globe. A rural woman can now, through Twitter, tell the world about her challenges and achievements.

We can also learn from the Rural Women's Movement which founded the Moutse Community Radio Station in Limpopo Province.  Community radio and television play a critical role in empowering marginalised communities. Through the Media Development & Diversity Agency (MDDA), government will continue to assist these communities to ensure we create media which reflects their needs and aspirations.

Although we as women have equal rights, the reality is that we still struggle to make our voices heard. We call on media to work with us to move the women’s agenda forward, because "the status of women is a test to civilisation”.

By Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi