Interview with Raheem Khan
Date: April 17, 2019
By Sabina Ansari
This policy brief examines the current representation of women in Pakistan`s national media landscape, which includes the status of women in the media industry, the portrayal of women in mainstream media, and the natural interconnectedness of the two. The paper outlines implications of the present gender gap and suggests policy interventions to reduce it.
“Fair gender portrayal is a professional and ethical aspiration, similar to respect for accuracy, fairness and honesty.”
-Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists in Getting the Balance right: Gender Equality in Journalism. IFJ. 2009
Pakistan enjoys a vibrant and growing media industry. The last decade has witnessed a notable increase in the size, strength and reach of the media, and rapid development in infrastructure and communication technology. The role media plays in any society is far richer than a mere dispenser of information and entertainment – media is subliminally regarded as a moral standard, a reflection of priorities and values, a purveyor of social commentary and connections, an authority. In the Pakistani context of low literacy rates and under-developed rural areas, the media exerts even more power on public consciousness.
However, there is much to be desired when it comes to regulation and the institutionalization of best practices in the media industry. Pakistan lacks a consistent media policy, and most media companies (including newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations) do not implement a commonly accepted code of ethics. With the media`s scope of influence in shaping societal values and beliefs, and new media`s dissemination of dynamic platforms for interaction and debate, it is imperative that such policies and codes be developed and implemented on a national level.
This paper addresses policy concerns specifically in the area of gender equality and portrayal in the media. In light of the status of women and its impact on Pakistan`s society and economy, of Pakistan`s explicit commitment to international covenants to improve the status of women, and of the media`s immense power as a means of social change, the development and implementation of appropriate media and gender policies will be of great national benefit.
The Bad News
Pakistan has a deplorable international standing with respect to the status of women, which is both a serious human rights issue and an impediment to economic development. Pakistan ranks 132nd out of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum`s 2010 Global Gender Gap Index. A mere 36% of Pakistani women are literate, and only 20% are members of the workforce.
In keeping with this trend, and despite large numbers of female students of media and mass communications, women are extremely underrepresented in the Pakistani media industry and all but non-existent in top management and decision-making positions. In news networks (which have overtaken entertainment networks in popularity), men outnumber women nearly 5:1. Women comprise a mere 3.8% of senior management, and mostly occupy roles at the junior level (15.5%). Women are most noticeably absent from senior ranks at mass-circulation Urdu-language dailies, which wield the most influence in shaping societal attitudes.
This marginalization of women negatively impacts the quality of media content, such that women`s voices remain muted in the presentation of news and issues, and women continue to be portrayed largely in negative stereotypes. Women often have a unique perspective on, and investment in, matters ranging from social issues and current affairs, to national security, conflict and violence. Omitting this voice from public discourse weakens the integrity of the dialogue and is a disservice to the entire audience.
Research indicates the following key factors that inhibit the participation and leadership of women in the media industry:
1. Unwelcoming environment: Men greatly outnumber women in media houses, especially in top management. This skews the work environment greatly in favour of men and causes women to face discrimination and a stark absence of basic amenities, such as adequate work spaces and seating arrangements, women`s toilets, transportation in the case of late working hours, etc. In addition, few companies have adequate policies in place for gender equity, maternity and childcare, and sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in a huge concern for women entering the media field. Many media houses have harassment policies in place, but women often face pressure or resistance when trying to report harassment.
2. Discrimination in pay: women receive less money for the same job performed by their male counterparts, most notably at the senior management level.
3. Professional roadblocks: There is an absence of training and capacity-building for women. Men can enhance their on-the-job learning by networking and shadowing their more experienced counterparts, but, in the absence of female mentors, social stigmas and sexual harassment prevent women from doing the same. Additionally, gender division of news beats is biased in favour of men. ‘Hard issues’ such as politics and the economy are assigned to men, and it is coverage on these topics that in turn provides opportunities for displaying journalistic excellence and garnering promotions. Senior editors tend to assign women to ‘women’s issues’, (mostly fashion and culture). In addition, there is gender-based insubordination from male employees to women who supervise or manage them. All these factors combine to produce a glass ceiling for women in media.
4. Cultural restrictions: Mainstream Pakistani culture has not traditionally approved of women working in the media industry, and while these attitudes might be shifting, a lot of women face opposition from their families. Long working hours, traveling, and returning home late, especially in the company of men, are all frowned upon. The force of such cultural restrictions gets amplified by the prevalence of sexist work environments and a lack of gender equity policies as mentioned.
At the same time, the dearth of women in media houses helps perpetuate problematic portrayals of women in the media, which inform societal views, and thus exists a vicious cycle.
News reportage tends to ignore women or relegate them to ‘women’s pages’ or lower-priority segments. This has the worst effect on elderly women and women belonging to the working class and minority communities. When women do get reported on, it is often gender-insensitive, does not feature the voices of women as sources or experts, and tends to focus on stories of women as helpless victims or sexual objects, while ignoring crucial issues such as gender-based violence and legal discrimination, as well as notable achievements by women in various aspects of personal and professional life. There is a large incidence of derogatory and judgmental language when reporting on women. A particularly troubling example of this is crime reportage, where gender-based violence, especially rape, is reported in a misogynistic manner which blames the victim.
In the political sphere, where women have a relatively healthier presence and influence, the media`s sexist reporting tendencies persist and focus on women more as political object than for political substance. In entertainment and advertisements, women are sexually objectified, commodified, and portrayed in limiting stereotypes. The most common portrayal of feminine identity is in relation to a man, whereas female individuality is discouraged or disparaged.
Clearly, to break this cycle of missing women decision-makers and prevailing negative portrayals of women, an intervention is in order.