Great Britain

Women’s voices marginalised in media reporting of coronavirus

Women STEM experts are underrepresented in media coverage of COVID.

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Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/PA Images

From domestic violence to bearing the brunt of lay-offs, it’s now a well-established fact that women are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. So why are their voices and expertise being ignored? 

For every mention of a prominent female STEM expert in COVID-19 coverage, there are nineteen mentions of a male counterpart. This is just one of several findings in a recent study which shows that women’s voices are largely absent from the discussion around COVID-19, as well as the spaces where decisions are being made about governmental response and policy. 

The research, conducted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, analysed 146,867 articles related to COVID-19 published between March and July of this year, drawing on fifteen leading news sources based in the UK, Australia and the US. The results? While women make up over half of those quoted in articles related to areas traditionally seen as feminine, like childcare and domestic violence, they comprise less than a sixth of those quoted on topics traditionally seen as masculine, like finance and the economy.

The repercussions of excluding women from these conversations should not be underestimated, lead researcher Laura Jones says: “The impacts of the pandemic have been gendered, so it’s important to make sure that the perspectives of everybody that is affected are heard.” 

“This research shows that we’re at this moment where all of these incredibly important decisions are being made – things are going to affect us for a very long time – and that female voices are underrepresented there.” 

Inequality pervades the political sphere, too: female politicians make up just four of the top twenty most mentioned domestic politicians in the articles analysed. While in some cases this may reflect the larger problem of the representation of women in politics, the UK currently has the most balanced parliament on record (34% of parliamentarians are women) – meaning that women are being quoted at lower rates than they are serving in public office.

The same is true of STEM. Only 5% of well-known STEM experts mentioned were women. This is despite the fact that women made up 17% of unique prominent STEM experts mentioned, and is driven by the most frequently named STEM experts – such as Anthony Fauci – receiving a very large share of the mentions.

Put another way, the experts receiving the most citations, who get mentioned time and time again, tend to be men.

And when we do see a more even distribution in quotations between men and women, it tends to be because the articles analysed include human interest stories about the impact of COVID-19 on everyday people, thus quoting women in a non-expert capacity.

While the media can’t directly address the underrepresentation of women in certain fields, Jones acknowledges, “they can play a role by keeping an eye on who they’re approaching, by not always going to the same people.”

“I think it’s also important that they keep an eye on who is in these key positions, keep pushing that issue and keep talking about why more equal representation across industries matters.” 

And does the research assume that women will always take a feminist stance; that more women equals better? Not necessarily, Jones says, but other studies do indicate as much. 

“Research shows that when women are in the room they tend to make decisions that benefit women more broadly. We recently did a big evidence review that looked at the impact of female politicians on policy affecting women, and they do tend to make more feminist policy.

“It’s not that there’s an inherent difference between men and women,” she adds. “It’s more about the different life experiences they’ve had. And it’s important to have that diversity of perspectives.”

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