Gender Gaps in the Media Visibility of Politicians
Professor Gunnar Thesen and Dr Tevfik Murat Yildirim
The most recent UN report (2022) on the sustainable development goals makes it clear that the world is far from reaching gender equality; in fact, the report states the world needs 286 years to remove discriminatory laws and close prevailing gaps in legal protections for women and girls, 140 years to achieve gender-equal representation in leadership positions in the workplace, and 40 years for gender-equal representation in national parliaments. Although the report focuses heavily on some of the most gender-unequal parts of the world, it also includes assessments of gender equality related to advanced democracies. Unsurprisingly, advanced democracies have fared a lot better than other parts of the world when it comes to gender equality. Despite this, however, democracies in Europe and Northern America were able to meet only one of the many targets related to gender equality, and it is clear from the report that there is still much work to do regarding the political representation of women.
Political science research shows that one of the challenges facing women in politics is their unequal representation in the media, and this bias of media coverage shows no sign of abating even in advanced democracies (Van der Pas and Aaldering 2020). In our latest research published in American Political Science Review (Thesen and Yildirim 2022), we analyzed the media appearances of members of parliament who served at least one term in the House of Commons from 2000 to 2016 to produce a detailed picture of some potential biases in the media. More specifically, we collected and coded over 1.5 million news stories published in the Guardian, the Times, and the Sun over 16 years, and then queried the news corpus to find out the frequency with which politicians appeared in the news. This left us with nearly 400,000 news stories in which at least a politician was mentioned.
We estimated empirical modelsled that predicted the media visibility of politicians with demographic and political factors, including age, gender, electoral safety, political work, and partisan characteristics, among others. Raw data clearly show that women in politics lag behind their male counterparts in the frequency with which they appear in the news. Without looking at some potentially confounding factors, however, this figure is not enough to reach a conclusion about gendered patterns in media visibility. This is mainly because women in the House of Commons have, on average, less political experience and electoral safety, and participate less in legislative activities than their male colleagues, and these factors are known to collectively influence one’s potential for media coverage. Our models showed that the gender gap documented in the raw data was mainly due to men’s initial advantage in political experience, political work, and other relevant factors. Once these factors are controlled for in the model, the gender gap in the media coverage of politicians disappears completely.
In the other country-case under investigation in our study, Norway, we found gender gaps that did not disappear when controlling for various power resources such as dominance in parliamentary activities, political experience, and electoral safety. We believe that the reason why this gloomy finding does not hold in the UK is due partly to electoral systems. Although the UK’s first-past-the-post system is not particularly conducive to producing a diverse parliament, it minimizes potential biases in journalist-politician relationships simply because each electoral district produces only one winner. Stated differently, when political journalists are interested in covering a political story related to a constituency, they do not have a list of politicians to choose from when preparing the story. Instead, there is only one politician to be contacted for each electoral district. Additionally, as majoritarian electoral systems are often more competitive for groups traditionally underrepresented in politics, women elected through such systems are also those who managed to overcome various challenges facing women in politics. This implies that women in politics who are elected through the first-past-the-post systems are likely have strong qualities (such as established connections with journalists) that make them appear more in the news, relative their counterparts in countries with proportional electoral system.
British politics is and will likely be gender-unequal in the foreseeable future as far as the media coverage of politicians is concerned. However, unlike in Norway, the gender gap in news visibility in the UK can be attributed to men’s initial advantage in power relations in the system. Our findings suggest that equalizing those factors will contribute greatly toward women’s presence in political news stories. That is, the gender gap in the media will likely disappear when the share of women politicians in the parliament, women’s overall political experience, and their participation in parliamentary activities are no less than those of men. This certainly implies that there is still a lot of work for women in politics to do to overcome the challenges facing them, although our results suggest that gender equality in the British news media is achievable.
Thesen, Gunnar., and Tevfik Murat Yildirim. 2022. “Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political News: Analyzing the News Visibility of Members of Parliament in Norway and the UK.” American Political Science Review
Van der Pas, Daphne J., and Loes Aaldering. 2020. “Gender Differences in Political Media Coverage: A MetaAnalysis.” Journal of Communication 70 (1): 114–43.