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Gender, journalism and democracy in Southern Africa

18th October 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


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Media provide a glimpse of the level of development that any country enjoys. Media freedom is arguably positively correlated to development levels. Female media practitioners play pivotal roles in the development of their respective countries and media industries. Gadzekpo (2) notes that those parts of Africa that have enjoyed substantial levels of democracy have also experienced growing media sectors. There is much academic focus on the link between media and democracy in Africa, but the relationship between gender, democracy and media has been largely ignored.(3)



The issue of gender disparities within African media is not new. It was one of the twelve critical areas of concern during the fourth United Nations (UN) World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Beyond pointing out the stereotypical use of women in media content, the conference also drew attention to the fact that female media practitioners do not usually hold decision-making positions in the workplace.(4) In 2008, Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state signed a protocol on gender and development, which requires them to perform in accordance with the 1997 Declaration on Gender and Development. Articles 29 - 31 of the protocol discuss media stereotypes in terms of content and the workplace.(5)



This CAI brief focuses primarily on the challenges that female media practitioners in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) face. It discusses "The Glass Ceilings: Women and Men in Southern African Media," a 2008 study conducted by Gender Links (GL), Gender Media South Africa (GEMSA) and the Gender and Media Discovery Centre (GMDC) in 14 different countries in the SADC region.

Media and development


The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) argues that media are critical in helping to address issues that relate to development, but without an "open, fair and well-managed Government," media efforts are likely to have no impact, and may hamper progress. A reciprocal relationship needs to be established between Governments and media. Without a free and transparent media sector, a Government cannot be considered democratic, but without a democratic Government, a media sector cannot hope to be free and independent. It is this weighted relationship that renders the media and information sectors pivotal aspects of any democracy.(6) "Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are surely essential elements in the development process," the World Bank's James Wolfensohn said during a conference of the World Bank and WAN in 1999.(7)


Whilst the media sector disseminates information, it is also able to critically asses a country's development by pointing out shortfalls and areas that need improvement. Ideally, it bridges the knowledge gap, and performs a watchdog function.(8) "A malnourished watchdog is of little use: to be truly free and independent, the press must be economically sound as well."(9) The media sector therefore envelops both business and social roles and the relationships between these are often tinged by numerous tensions. "The need to focus on the kinds of information available and the means by which information is produced, disseminated and received is of critical importance," states Wayneki.(10) Possession of information not only equals power, but the dissemination of information is also characterised by particular patterns of power wielding.


Women and media


"Media contribute to the shaping of our understanding of success, beauty and what it means to be male and female."(11) After they gained independence from the colonial powers, many African countries underwent dramatic changes in their pursuit for democracy. Emphasis on democratic principles such as freedom, diversity, and truth resulted in the liberalisation and proliferation of media sectors throughout much of Africa. As a result, "state domination of media has given way to a multiplicity of privately-owned newspapers and radio stations in many countries across the continent."(12) African women have used various opportunities to engage in and create media. For example, Meridian FM in Ghana and MAMA FM in Uganda are both community radio stations that were established by women. Despite these and other similar developments, women's voices remain absent from the decision-making chambers of mainstream media. By dominating the decision-making positions of various media outlets (including press, broadcasting, advertising, film, publishing and even public critique) men control the means of expression and are able to "convey the ideas and values of a patriarchal order."(13)


The large number of female journalists in newsrooms means that the masculine views and ideals that mainstream media project are perceived as produced by men and women, and therefore as ‘normal' and acceptable. However, few of these female journalists are columnists, so opportunities to openly discuss issues from a female perspective are limited. Most media managers are males and they decide which positions female employees occupy.(14) Few policies exist to regulate newsroom management on issues that concern women, such as maternity, sexual harassment, and the training and development of female-responsive media.(15)


"Thus the acceptance of journalistic practice and convention based on routinisation allows male perspectives to be construed as unproblematic and uncontested, and - most importantly - to appear value-free."(16) Although there are women in newsrooms, men still steer the boat and their ideals and concerns continue filling newspapers, radio programmes and television productions. Perhaps men prefer to keep women out of powerful media positions because they perceive women to be consumers, not producers, of information.(17) Female journalists who realise the dilemma they face often follow one of the following strategies: incorporation (assuming male responsibilities and objectives); feminism (work against male norms and try to expose female views, even indirectly) and retreat (leave the newsroom to work as freelance journalists).(18)


Most African countries have women media associations. For example, the Ethiopian Media Women's Association (EMWA), the Association of Media Women of Kenya (AMWK), the Tanzanian Media Women's Association (TAMWA), and the Ugandan Media Women's Association (UMWA). These organisations help to improve women's journalistic capabilities and work to incorporate female perspectives and ideas into mainstream and private media.(19)


The glass ceilings


"The glass ceilings: Women and men in Southern African media" gathered information from 126 media houses (23,678 employees) - about half of all SADC media houses. A total of 471 respondents (46% female and 54% male) from a variety of positions in media houses (administrators, managers, media practitioners and editorial staff) responded to perception questionnaires.(20) Below are some of the study's key findings:


First, media practitioners in southern Africa are primarily male: 59% of media employees in the included countries were male. When South African figures are removed from this calculation, the figure drops to 32%. In other words, only 32% of media employees in SADC countries other than South Africa are female. South Africa, Lesotho, and Seychelles are the only three countries in the region where women have managed to achieve some sort of stronghold in media houses. In Lesotho (where many cabinet ministers are female), 73% of media practitioners are women. South Africa has a 50/50 parity (only 18% of these women are black) and in the Seychelles 49% of media practitioners are female. In contrast, female media employees in other SADC countries constitute a third or less of the media industry workforce. For instance, in Mozambique, only 27% of media employees are female. The figure is even lower in Malawi (23%) and the DRC (22%) and lowest in Zimbabwe (13%) (note that employees from the Zimbabwe National Broadcasting Corporation refused to participate in the study, hence the 13% figure applies to print practitioners).(21)


Second, senior positions and top management employ few females. Only 28% of board members and directors in Southern Africa are women whilst 23% of managers in SADC media houses are women. Although 46% of media practitioners in the Seychelles are female, there are no women in top management. 11% of Zambia's top management are women. Lesotho and Namibia perform well in this category, with respectively 56% and 42% of top managers being women.(22) Men dominate editorial (58%), production (69%), and technical (84%) departments whilst women tend to be employed in more supportive positions such as finance (54%), marketing (57%) and human resources (44%). There also seems to be a division in terms of the types of news stories women get to produce. Managers tend to assign ‘soft' news and stories that are stereotypically perceived as belonging in the domain of women, such as gender violence or beauty tips, to female journalists. Men are assigned ‘hard' news stories, investigative reporting and political news. Some SADC countries challenge this norm. For example, in Botswana and South Africa, 50% and 40% respectively of sports coverage is done by women. In South Africa, women dominate finance news: they report on 83% of financial and business stories, and in Namibia on 71% of such stories.(23)


Third, women journalists are paid considerably less than their male colleagues. Fourth, sexual harassment in the newsroom remains a problem. Many female journalists reported that they were often made to feel like sexual objects at work. Only 28% of the media houses covered had policies in place to guard against sexual harassment in the newsroom. Beyond that, only 16% of media houses in the study had gender policies in place which provided guidelines for dealing with issues such as achieving gender parity and encouraging the dissemination of female views.(24)


Concluding remarks


When the media industry ignores issues like gender equality, these issues are arguably not on the national agenda either. Although media houses have the power to disseminate perspectives and discourses that promote gender equality, they rarely do so. As we can see, female presence in newsrooms is not enough to change the status quo. Women who work in the media sector should collaborate and pressure managers and owners to admit that the industry propagates male views and to employ more women managers. Media houses need to acknowledge the power they have. The owners of media houses should be held accountable for gender inequality in their newsrooms and in their news products. Ownership of media houses should reserve spaces for women owners, and these women in turn should work to produce media with a social conscience. The idea that the media simply produce what sells disguises the fact that the media also determine what sells. The media sector's pivotal role in the continuous re-affirmation of norms and values is a structural issue, the biases of which demand broad recognition before they can be addressed.


Women are powerful, resourceful actors and many men already acknowledge the issues discussed in this brief. Hopefully, the development of Southern African democracies will soon benefit from drastic action by men and women to change the status quos (which we like to complain but do nothing about).

Written by: Claudia Forster-Towne (1)


(1) Contact Claudia Forster-Towne through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit (
(2) Gadzekpo, A., 2009. "Missing links: African media studies and feminist concerns." in Journal of African Media Studies, 1(1).
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) ‘Gender and media in Africa - A review', GWS Africa, 21 September2009,
(6) Timothy Balding, ‘A new approach to development: The role of the press. A WAN/World Bank Conference', 1999,
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Lynne Wayneki, 2002.,‘The impact of (New) information and communication technologies (NICTS) on the media professions and media content with respect to gender', 15 November 2002, United Nations,
(11) Ibid.
(12) Gadzekpo, A., 2009. "Missing links: African media studies and feminist concerns." in Journal of African Media Studies, 1(1).
(13) Thornham, S., 2007. Women, feminism and media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. P. 7.
(14) Lynne Wayneki, 2002.,‘The impact of (New) information and communication technologies (NICTS) on the media professions and media content with respect to gender', 15 November 2002, United Nations,
(15) Ibid.
(16) Byerly, C. & Ross, K., 2006. Women and media: A critical introduction. UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pp. 78-79.
(17) Thornham, S., 2007. Women, feminism and media. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. P. 8.
(18) Byerly, C. & Ross, K., 2006. Women and media: A critical introduction. UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pp. 78-79.
(19) Lynne Wayneki, 2002.,‘The impact of (New) information and communication technologies (NICTS) on the media professions and media content with respect to gender', 15 November 2002, United Nations,
(20) ‘Glass ceilings: Women and men in Southern African media', 2009, Gender Links,
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.




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