For the past three years, WAN-IFRA has systematically tracked and reported on gender balance in the editorial content of 29 media we partner with in Sub Saharan Africa and the Arab Region as part of the WAN-IFRA Women in News programme. We have done this with using a Gender Balance tracker tool we developed, which tracks English and Arabic content with an average of 93% accuracy.
The tool looks at four main indicators; Mention of women, Women as main characters, Women as sources, and Women as authors.
Using this tool, the WAN-IFRA WIN team has sifted through and documented thousands of articles over a 36 month period, in addition to conducting more than 60 training sessions, with nearly a thousand editors and journalists, distributing practical training resources, newsroom toolkits, alongside feeding the results of our content analysis directly to our partners.
Despite these efforts, gender balance scores for the media we tracked did not improve between 2020 and 2023. At all. In fact, for some indicators, scores actually worsened over time.
Not once did cumulative averages surpass 19%, only a single percentage point shift from our baseline of 18% which was set at the start of the three 3 year period. This only slightly trails behind global averages, which have been stagnant at 25% for nearly two decades.
SIRI grants buck the trends
We did see a significant improvement in gender balance scores within the 18 media partners who took part in the 2022 Social Impact Reporting Initiative (SIRI) – an initiative which provides small organisational grants to media to launch innovative projects to improve their gender balance in content and attract more diverse audiences.
As part of this grant scheme, small teams from each media partner were trained in how to use the Gender Balance tracker. They were then asked to track their general content and circulate their results internally on a weekly basis.
During this three3-month period, gender balance scores rose a full 10% higher than than the three3 year average – nearly hitting the 30% mark. Alas, when we followed-up with these same media partners 6 months after the conclusion of the SIRI initiative, the majority, if not all of the figures had fallen back to their pre-activity levels. None of the teams had continued their internal tracking and reporting.
So, what have we learned from this otherwise frustrating three3-year experiment?
While impossible to draw categorical conclusions for media generally, we can deduce for our media partners at least the following: when they tracked their own data and reported their findings internally, it led to direct improvement in their gender balance scores.
When internal teams pay attention to the data themselves, they are more accountable. This conclusion is bolstered by the successful experiment of the BBC 50/50 project, which at its genesis relied on a simple spreadsheet to track sources, first by gender, and later by other social categories, on a voluntary basis. In these cases, concrete improvements were seen almost immediately. The initiative continues to see results.
Need for concerted, ongoing effort
It also reaffirms to us that bringing about real, concrete change when it comes to gender balance – and more broadly diversity and inclusion – in content, is a slow and difficult process that requires concerted effort by editorial and management teams to track, report and reflect – repeat.
It also reconfirms to WAN-IFRA WIN how relevant and necessary ongoing initiatives to recognise and celebrate excellence remain in this space, as we did most recently in Taipei with the announcement of the Women in News Editorial Leadership Award Laureates for 2023. This group of most senior editors fails to exceed the 25% mark in major media brands around the world, with only slightly better averages in the countries where WIN is active.
According to a study conducted by researcher Phillippa Lally and featured in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes on average 66 repetitions of a practice for it to become a habit. Perhaps our next challenge to media partners will be to track and internally report for 66 uninterrupted days.
In whatever way we approach this next in an attempt to galvanise media to move the dial on gender balance, one thing is certain: decades into the march for gender equality and inclusion, we continue to have our work cut out for us.