Educating gender-responsible media professionals

Paper presented to UNESCO-SWAN working group from South Asian countries on setting guidelines in “Gender balance in education and training (pre-service and in-service training)”, New Delhi, 4 May 2016.

Geert Hofstede’s seminal work in 1984 on cultural differences across the world found that much of South Asia (although Iran leads the way globally) scores very high on gender distance. This should come as no surprise because the distance manifests itself as bias across our mediascape. This submission attempts to identify some lacunae in media education’s attention to gender studies, and recommends some basic norms that media education in the region must adopt. A more detailed paper will later examine the precise points that should go into the curricula.

Because the media communicate directly with the masses, and because they must constantly bear in mind pressures of ratings and numbers, there is what I have previously called the anxiety of speed in performance. In the process, much of the content is corner-cut. In countries like India, one of those corners is journalistic (or otherwise media-related) ethics—and this includes gender mainstreaming.

As widely known, Gender Links, the South African media and gender organization, has done fundamental research on the subject of gender equality in media education. Its 2010 study indicates that not many countries have introduced gender studies in media. Some western universities (eg University of London, MIT) have introduced media and gender studies by interestingly fused together with race and other forms of identity. Notwithstanding the merits of curricula that do so, gender studies must be treated with more interdisciplinarity. As a study points out, it needs to be integral to most subjects taught within media studies per se.

While we can debate whether gender mainstreaming should be a part of ethics at all, media educators like me would perhaps do well to include it under something much more mandatory, something integral to the practice. Media professionals are like any other professional—a police officer, for example—belonging to the society they serve. There is not enough debate on whether media education must serve to change professional practice, because there is not enough being said about what the role of the media is—is it change, or is reflection?

What is beyond debate, of course, is the fact that teachers, too, belong to the society they strive to better. Women constitute between 21 per cent (Nepal) to 65 per cent (Afghanistan) of the teaching work force. About 45 per cent of teachers in India are women. There is a dire need to educate the educator on gender mainstreaming at school levels, and thereby lay the foundation toward more advanced input later, at college levels and at the workplace.

Media and gender bias

If we were to identify three key gender-related issues in the media professional space, they would be as follows:

  1. Low women’s participation, gender sensitization among employees, and gender sensitization in news, film and promotional content are the most glaring of the touch-points when it comes to the need for gender mainstreaming in the media. Although, traditionally, 65 per cent of my students over 15 years have been female, a recent (2015) study by Newslaundry showed that women produce less than 30 per cent of the media content in India. Unfortunately, this percentage is among the higher ratios across industries. A former professor and now digital communication head of a famous museum in New York, Sree Sreenivasan, recently announced that he would decline to be on a panel or a discussion forum if it was all-male. This would be an especially powerful stand to take in a social-sciences or humanities discussion such as this one. It would be even more significant if prominent women took a stand not to participate in gender discussions that are all-female. Therefore, improving participation among women in the media, both as working media professionals and as sources, would be primary goals.
  2. In-house gender sensitization training in media houses is limited, usually to technology upgrades. In India, while a couple of news television networks do encourage employees to enhance their qualifications through a degree from a western country (usually, a U.K. university), this is usually considered a luxury by most. The demands of time and finance are usually prioritized in favour of more ratings-worthy investments. Such investments are usually rare in the promotional industries, and practically absent in filmmaking or related businesses. Because a U.K. degree is likely to train more “organically” in gender mainstreaming—through language use, social consciousness, etc—professionals thus trained have a more insightful “gender worldview”.
  3. Gender-mainstreaming media content. Advertisement after advertisement in India is replete with gender bias. Most of this prejudice is in the form of occupational discrimination (the woman-in-the-kitchen syndrome) and blatant objectification (the woman-in-seductive-avatar syndrome). There are many exceptions now, of which the latest Vodafone television spot is an example. In this, there is a reversal of traditional roles, where the woman is working and the man is the one who drops their son to the school bus (with a humorous content woven in).
  4. Check for gender bias in content: As a colleague once remarked, there are no women’s issues. Just as our budding and practising media professionals routinely check for facts, balance and bias, a check for gender bias should be practised, and that would truly make gender mainstreaming possible.

More importantly, not all of this bias is unconscious on the part of the creative head of the agency, or the client. It is carefully crafted brand strategy that, hypothetically, appeals to the “mainstream” nation. The receiver of the message, thereby, is often less conscious of this bias. Producers, however, maintain the argument that ads are deliberately strategized to reflect practices of the lowest common denominator of the society it targets, with no pretensions of intent (or mandate, or commitment) to change them.

News, too, is full of such bias—often of a different kind. With the new “campaign-driven news” format, news television often shows women as victims more than achievers, to be protected by men. Faces are blurred out even in cases where there is no legal restriction (blurring of faces of rape victims, for example, is mandated).

Media education and gender studies

Therefore, the role of media education and training is cut out. It is to inform, educate and sensitize producers of media content. In our region, there is less-than-optimum awareness among both men and women since most of our mainstream societies are steeped in practices that reflect discrimination and distinction between the genders.

There are at least three aspects to work towards in gender mainstreaming within media education, especially in our South Asian region:

  • Mandating gender studies at school levels, as a part of the Social Studies curriculum.
  • University Grants Commission must mandate gender studies for all mass communication colleges at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels in India; similar government mandates are needed across South Asia.
  • Mandated hours of training in gender mainstreaming for all media professionals in the news, advertising and allied industries.
  • Teacher training in gender studies. As argued before, educating the educator is critical because of inherent social biases that a teacher, like a professional, carries.

The curricular approach

Educating aspiring and working media professionals could include the following content:

  1. i) Social stereotypes. Perhaps the most important of all the subjects is simply creating conscious awareness of the gender (and other) stereotypes a society lives in. There are innumerable examples of gender stereotypes in schoolbooks—and governments have connived at these examples as non-priority. Our police force has mainstreamed the question to female victims of gender violence in public places with the appalling question: “What were you doing out at 10:00 p.m.?” Police routinely issue statements asking women to stay indoors at night; women routinely fail to bring to the authorities’ attention that it is a right to do so. This kind of bias has been seeping right through our media lens, but in the recent times some journalists have been able to catch it in their net of questioning. Education in stereotypes-avoidance also entails education in rights and responsibilities (and hence Social Studies).
  2. ii) Gender equality studies. To counter stereotypes it is imperative to imbibe the consciousness of equality. Embedded in this would be the idea of how to respect. Often, what is considered among families as respecting a woman is itself a form of patriarchal prejudice. Embedded in this subject is the education on transiting from protectionism to freedom.

iii) Training in use of gender-neutral language. Media writing is under threat as a subject because of the presumed relegation of words to images. Language use is merely another form of representation, just as images are, and gender-neutrality must be an integral part across the modules. As interdisciplinary as it may be, gender-neutral language use must also be taught as a one-class topic but its practice must be carefully monitored.

  1. iv) Portrayal of women and men in media. Whether it is news or other media, a conscious training programme must include do’s and don’ts, and a gender equality body (such as SWAN) would do well to evolve a normative set of these. Ideally, news organizations’ Editorial Policies and Style Book should include these norms.
  2. v) Widening the scope of gender studies. Earlier, I have argued for interdisciplinarity of gender studies, treating it integrally within each media subject. The reason for this is that it is the practice, not the subject, that will ultimately make the change, and in order to ensure practice, it is necessary to mainstream the usages and the various concepts across the subjects taught. Making gender studies normative should be the ultimate objective of all gender mainstreaming efforts in media education.


Let us draw conscious attention to the peril of including gender studies in curricula. The danger of it becoming too structural has been documented variously, significantly in a Luxembourg Government report called “Gender Roles and Stereotypes in Education and Training” (2005). Political or other forms of top-down stipulation has often been seen to relegate itself to bare compliance levels, losing the essence and the philosophy.

A study that attempts to draw correlation between gender studies and reduction in crime against women in South Asia would be a fertile area of research. Governments need to realize the long-term benefits of introducing gender studies at all levels, and the point is better driven home by evidencing such linkages. Content analysis of school material across South Asia would lead to hypotheses around gender biases, and school boards must take note of these studies.


-Shashidhar Nanjundaiah 
Dean, India Today Media Institute