This blog post discusses the ratio of male to female experts giving commentary on broadcast outlets, which affects the way that stories about science are reported and understood by the public, in the context of the Covid crisis.
There has always been a disproportion in the numbers of male and female guests invited to be interviewed and give opinion and expertise on television news programmes. In some cases broadcasters have argued that they were obliged to interview many more men, because men held the majority of important positions in society. However, in other cases – where the studio guest was invited as an expert commentator – the reason for the disparity seemed harder to justify.
The Journalism Department at City, University of London (a QUEST partner), in 2012 started a project to count and monitor numbers of women experts on air over a range of broadcast outlets. They focused on monthly monitoring of all the main UK news programmes and overall the results demonstrated a ratio of around 4.4:1 male to female experts. This campaign to highlight the gap eventually led to targeted training of potential female experts by the BBC from many subject areas, including female scientists. It also led to wider awareness of the need for the programme producers to seek out female expertise, where appropriate. And consequently in the period from 2012 – 2018 the ongoing monitoring revealed a discernible shift towards a more balanced use of experts in many UK news programmes. By 2018 the ratio of men to women experts in the UK news had reduced to an average of slightly over 2:1, representing a big improvement.
The City research project also interviewed broadcast producers to discover why they believed there was such a gender disparity. The answers indicated that women were often reluctant to participate because they felt unqualified to comment, even in areas where they had recognised expertise. Male guests were far more likely to agree to go on TV.
Similar patterns had been recorded in other countries. A smaller monitoring project was conducted in India in 2018 which recorded a big gender disparity. And the worldwide Gender Media monitoring project which is a survey of broadcast news conducted every ten years also highlights a disparity in the presence of women as experts across many countries.
As the Covid-19 story broke and eventually dominated the news agenda in March 2020, the City expert women research team wanted to analyse the gender of experts commenting on this in the mainstream UK news. The result was that the ratio of male to female experts had risen to 2.7 men for each woman. This was a three-year high and reversed the change that had been noticed over the previous period where the balance between male and female guests was slowly becoming more equal. By February 2019 the ratio had dropped to 1.9:1. The reason for the big jump in March appeared to be the prevalence of political and government spokespeople on the news programmes. A great deal of the Covid coverage at this point in the UK was political analysis and speculation and also included many traditional establishment figures. However interestingly in April when the thrust of the story became much more one about health care and how hospitals/care homes were coping in the crisis, so the ratio reversed again and the ratio returned to 2.1:1.
The gender disparity in the public expertise available on the Covid crisis is indeed a wider issue. Other countries have noted indications that there has been a preponderance of male experts opining on this topic, which is a wider cause for concern. In Germany for example an academic at Freiburg University Thomas Zimmer objected when his university presented 8 expert videocasts on the crisis all of them presented by men.
Similarly in Italy the journalist Roberta Villa (also from the QUEST project) observed that
“we had a great gender issue in this crisis: all the decision-makers are men and all the members of the scientific advisory group chosen by the Government were men. …
This prompted a strong reaction from Italian women on social networks, so in May our Prime minister corrected the situation including some female experts both in the main scientific advisory group and the task force for reopening after lockdown.
As far as the media are concerned, they mainly host male scientists, despite the fact that about 70% of healthcare workers in Italy are female, one of the main experts of SARS in Italy, Elisa Vicenzi, is a woman, as were the researchers who first sequenced SARS-CoV-2 in Italy.”
Feelings have run so strong on this matter that an international group of 35 female scientists working on Covid-19 recently published a joint letter highlighting how women’s voices have been overlooked in the coverage.
“Women are advising policymakers, designing clinical trials, coordinating field studies and leading data collection and analysis, but you would never know it from the media coverage of the pandemic. … unqualified men’s voices are being amplified over expert women because they have been identified through informal male networks, or have blustered their way in to social media and TV interviews and are therefore perceived as ‘high profile’.”
The ongoing monitoring highlights the need for continuing vigilance to ensure diversity amongst those who convey expertise. It applies across society – including for example the debates about all male panels (‘manels’) and in the way that universities promote expertise.
You can read more about City, University of London‘s Expert Women Project here. The project has also received international coverage:
- Azione: Le donne ci saranno (Italian)
- presseagence.fr: COVID-19, Les débats politiques privilégient l’expertise masculine (French)
- Tabula Rasa Magazin: Männliche vs. weibliche Experten in britischen Nachrichtensendungen (German)
(Image from France24)