How women’s voices have been marginalised in COVID media coverage

A new study by King’s College London analysed 146,867 articles about coronavirus – and found a striking lack of women’s voices and perspectives.

Screenshot 2020-10-30 at 10.06.39.png
Sophia Seawell
30 October 2020, 10.06am
Women experts have been largely excluded from COVID-19 media coverage.
Julian Stratenschulte/DPA/PA Images

From domestic violence to bearing the brunt of lay-offs, women have been disproportionately affected by many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. So why are their voices and expertise being ignored by the media? 

For every mention of a prominent woman expert in COVID-19 coverage, there are nineteen mentions of a man. This is just one of several findings in a recent study which shows that women’s voices have been largely absent from public discussions around COVID-19, as well as the spaces where decisions are being made.

The research, conducted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, analysed 146,867 articles related to COVID-19 published between March and July of this year, by fifteen leading news outlets based in the UK, Australia and the US.

While women make up over half of the individuals quoted in articles related to issues like childcare and domestic violence, the researchers found that they comprise less than a sixth of those quoted on topics like finance and the economy.

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The repercussions of excluding women from these conversations should not be underestimated, lead researcher Laura Jones says: “The impacts of the pandemic have been gendered, so it’s important to make sure that the perspectives of everybody that is affected are heard.” 

“This research shows that we’re at this moment where all of these incredibly important decisions are being made – things are going to affect us for a very long time – and that female voices are underrepresented there.” 

Inequality pervades the political sphere, too: female politicians make up just four of the top twenty most mentioned domestic politicians in the articles analysed. While in some cases this may reflect the larger problem of the representation of women in politics, the UK currently has the most balanced parliament on record (34% of parliamentarians are women) – meaning that women are being quoted at lower rates than they are serving in public office.

The impacts of the pandemic have been gendered, so it’s important to make sure that the perspectives of everybody that is affected are heard.

The same is true of medical and scientific voices. Only 5% of these experts mentioned in news reports were women.

The researchers found a more even distribution in quotations between men and women in human interest stories about the impact of COVID-19 on everyday people – but these articles were largely quoting women in a non-expert capacity.

While those working in the media can’t directly address the underrepresentation of women in certain fields, Jones acknowledges, “they can play a role by keeping an eye on who they’re approaching, by not always going to the same people.”

“I think it’s also important that they keep an eye on who is in these key positions, keep pushing that issue and keep talking about why more equal representation across industries matters.” 

Does the research assume that having more women in public debates and decision-making will automatically produce better results for women and societies at large? Not necessarily, Jones says, but other studies do indicate as much. 

“Research shows that when women are in the room they tend to make decisions that benefit women more broadly. We recently did a big evidence review that looked at the impact of female politicians on policy affecting women, and they do tend to make more feminist policy."

“It’s not that there’s an inherent difference between men and women,” she adds. “It’s more about the different life experiences they’ve had. And it’s important to have that diversity of perspectives.”

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