Female voices 'drowned out' in reporting on Covid-19, report finds

Women’s voices have been “worryingly marginalised” in reporting of the coronavirus, partly due to the war-like framing of the pandemic, according to a report analysing stories across six countries.

Each woman’s voice in news coverage of the crisis is “drowned out” by at least three men, it said.

The report, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and examining the UK, US, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and India, said women have been “locked out” of coronavirus decision making at a national level in five of the countries.

In England, the makeup of Boris Johnson’s daily C-19 meeting is 100% male, compared with 93% of the US pandemic response team. Half of South Africa’s response team were men, the report found.

Percentage of men in Covid-19 response decision-making bodies

While the core attendees of Johnson’s committee are the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the prime minister, other key ministers such as the home secretary, Priti Patel, may attend.

The study said the pandemic had exacerbated the lack of women’s voices in the news, particularly in the UK and US. Only 19% of experts quoted in highly ranked coronavirus stories were women, compared with 77% of men, across the six countries. Fewer than one in four protagonists in the stories analysed were women, it found.

Luba Kassova, the report’s author and co-director of Addy Kassova Audience Strategy (AKAS), said: “There is a worrying marginalisation of women’s voices and an incredible bias towards men in terms of experts, expertise and story protagonists. We also found the gender equality dimension of stories to be less than 1%.”

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“It is partly to do with the ‘war framing’ of the crisis. The idea that this is an emergency and that men are better equipped to deal with it. Women are being pushed out.”

Kassova said the framing of the pandemic in the news was critical because it influences policy decision-making on the Covid-19 response.

Gender of people in Covid-19 stories in the news

Politicians, more likely to be men in all six countries, dominated the coverage of the crisis, which had led to women protagonists being excluded from stories, the report found. Out of 44,000 stories examined, from 80 publications, including the Guardian, women were five times less likely to feature as protagonists in headlines than men in the US, four times less likely in South Africa and Nigeria, and around three times less likely in India, Kenya and the UK.

Due to the political nature of the crisis, the marginalisation of women in decision-making roles in the countries analysed “locks in” the suppression of women’s voices, the report said.

The women given a voice in the pandemic are rarely portrayed as authoritative experts, or empowered individuals, but as victims or people affected by the disease, or sources of personal opinion, it found.

Women make up 88% of all care workers but are quoted only 16–25% of the time in news about Covid-19, the report found.

The report used an NGO, Media Ecosystems Analysis Group, to examine the content of stories in the most visited online news providers in each of the six countries between 1 March and 15 April, in terms of its gender equality. It also looked at 80 publications to analyse the gender makeup of experts and protagonists.

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It is the first of two reports to be commissioned by the Gates Foundation, the second of which will look into the causes of underrepresentation of women in the news.



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