According to a recent British study led by James Curran, director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, women know less about the ins and outs of the political world than men. The study found that this holds true even in countries where gender equality is on the rise and in nations considered to be world leaders on this front. Women, it seems, simply know less about current events than their male counterparts.
Canadian men, for example, correctly answered nearly half of the study’s survey questions, while Canadian women got only a third right.
As to why this gendered knowledge gap exists, the study offered some explanations.
Over all, the researchers found that news is heavily weighted towards male sources, even in countries with high levels of gender equality, and in the 10 countries in the study, women were only interviewed or cited in 30 per cent of television news stories.
Women appeared a lot in every country as sources in longer news pieces, and in soft news topics that included family, lifestyle and culture.
“Such under-representation and topical bias of women in news media may curb women’s motivation to acquire political knowledge actively, and discourage them from political participation, and even prevent women from engaging in citizens in a democratic society,” co-researcher Professor Kaori Hayashi said.
Other theories put forward include the possibility that women are generally busier than men and therefore less likely to spend their time reading the newspaper, or that lingering and outdated social norms preclude women from consuming news.
While both of these suggestions may hold weight, I tend to agree with Caroline Criado-Perez, founder of The Women’s Room advocacy group, who was quoted in the Independent as saying that the research findings didn’t come as a shock, given that women are underrepresented in politics.
I’m not surprised [by the findings] because there’s a lot of research into the fact that women need to see themselves represented in order to feel part of the debate. Girls aren’t born not interested in politics – any more than boys are born engaged with it. Boys are shaped to be interested in it and feel they have a stake in it and people are listening to them.
Women, Criado-Perez suggests, are less informed about politics than men because politics, at least as it’s covered by the news media, still consists mostly of dudes talking about dudes.
And women tend to care less about all that than they do kids, relationships, books, movies, and fashion — which, I might add, are preferences that society shapes, enhances, and cultivates. Just as women aren’t inherently disinterested in politics, they’re also not innately interested in book reviews, fashion trends, and celebrity culture. That’s just where female faces and voices are best represented.
In my experience, if and when something that deeply affects women occurs in the political sphere, you better believe we pay attention. Like Democratic Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-hour abortion filibuster — I read about that. I also noticed how one of the stories to emerge from that event was the edited Wikipedia entry comparing Davis to LeBron James, a man. I thought it was cute, but I can’t wait for the day when an NBA star is described by the news media as the “Wendy Davis of basketball.”
Based on an informal environmental scan (read: perusing Facebook and chatting with my female colleagues and friends), I submit that women engage in news items that touch on their lives and experiences — Hillary Clinton 2016, the plight of powerful women, the prevalence of rape and rape culture, and changing prostitution laws, for example.
Of course, a day’s worth of casual office and online conversations hardly stands up against a rigorous scientific study. Curran and company’s findings are distressing, and the solution to women’s lack of engagement in politics and current affairs is not simply to write and read about more “women’s issues.”
I believe that as women get closer and closer to parity with men in terms of political representation, the knowledge gap demonstrated by this study will begin to close. I’m also aware that, in the meantime, women will have to put in some work. We will have to make time for it. We will have to consciously reject the outdated notion that consuming news is a man’s province. My hope is that in years to come our efforts will be paid off and it will be easier to find voices we relate to, opinions that reflect our realities, and faces that look more like ours on the evening news and the front page of the daily paper.
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Mikael Bingham is the Deputy Editor of Ballast.