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Harmful Stereotypes in the Media: Public Discourse on Women

Even in the #MeToo era, stereotypes around women and their sexual behavior, including in the media, legislators, law enforcement, medical staff, and the general public, play a role in whether violence is recognized and how it is dealt with.

What is the problem?

UN Secretary General António Guterres concluded, in his review of achievements against the objectives on the Beijing Platform for Action to date, that, “[t]he persistence of gender stereotypes and discrimination in the media remains one of the major overall challenges to women’s empowerment and gender equality. Of particular concern to a broad range of governments are the persistent, degrading, discriminatory, objectified and hyper-sexualized representations of women and girls within the media, with a growing trend of misogynistic and violent images, including in social media, gaming, and pornography. Easier access to these images through the Internet and mobile phones affects healthy social and emotional development, especially for youth, who are forming perceptions around sexuality, intimacy, and relationships”.

Who is making the news?

A UNESCO report containing data on women in the news media from 59 countries and 522 news media organizations found that women make up 35% of the total media workforce across the world, but only hold 27% of the jobs in top management and 26% of governance positions. Men, therefore, make up the significant majority of opinion formers in the world in terms of what gets reported and how.

The Beijing Platform for Action

Strategic objective J.2. of the Beijing Platform for Action, signed by 189 governments in 1995, is to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media”.

Governments committed among other things to:

  • Encourage the media to refrain from presenting women as inferior beings and exploiting them as sexual objects and commodities, rather than presenting them as creative human beings, key actors and contributors to and beneficiaries of the process of development
  • Promote the concept that the sexist stereotypes displayed in the media are discriminatory, degrading and offensive
  • Take effective measures or institute such measures, including appropriate legislation against pornography and the projection of violence against women and children in the media

The media were encouraged to:

  • Develop, consistent with freedom of expression, professional guidelines, and codes of conduct and other forms of self-regulation to promote the presentation of non-stereotyped images of women
  • Establish, consistent with freedom of expression, professional guidelines, and codes of conduct that address violent, degrading or pornographic materials concerning women in the media, including advertising
  • Develop a gender perspective on all issues of concern to communities, consumers and civil society

Misrepresentation and inaccurate reporting

A free press is essential to the functioning of a fair, equal, and accountable society. The free speech of women and their consequent access to justice is, however, impeded when reporting is inaccurate, intrusive, and misrepresents the context of violence against women and girls. As noted by the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition in the UK, “[s]uch reporting on violence against women has both an immediate and a cumulative effect. It says to individual perpetrators that there is some justification for assaults on women. Over time it incrementally and subtly informs the way the whole community perceives certain crimes and whether in fact, it is then possible to get justice for them.

Rape myths for example – such as that ‘real rape’ is committed by a stranger with a weapon and is sometimes ‘provoked’ by women who are dressed in a certain manner or have had too much to drink – feed everyone’s view on who is seen as a ‘real’ victim, who is a perpetrator and consequently which cases are prosecuted and achieve a conviction, even which cases are ever reported in the first place.

Editors’ codes

Editors’ codes for the press and broadcast media should set clear, professional standards that promote equality, non-discrimination, and respect for all people.

Various NGOs, including Zero ToleranceGender Links, and Women’s Media Center have guides and research that can aid good media reporting. UNESCO is also coordinating a Global Alliance on Media and Gender to promote gender equality in and through the media globally. Such initiatives need to be supported as a way also of fostering an environment of zero tolerance to sexual violence.