News Media Coverage of Elections Contributes to Women’s Political Under-Representation



Why do women make up 50% of Canada’s population, but hold only 25% of seats in the House of Commons? Explaining this disjuncture is no small task. Political parties could be doing more to identify, nominate, and support electorally-viable female candidates. Deeply-ingrained gender norms hinder women’s perceptions of their own qualifications for office, decreasing the number of women who ever consider running. The list of reasons why women do not have equal voice in Parliament is long. My recent book, Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics in Canada, provides considerable evidence that news media coverage contributes to the under-representation problem.

Analysts tend to think about news coverage in terms of two broad categories: visibility and quality. Visibility refers to how much a person is shown or discussed, as well as how prominent in a newspaper or news broadcast their coverage is placed. On this measure, there is little systematic evidence that women are perennially disadvantaged. On certain indicators of visibility, women lag behind men, but on others, women and men are equal, or women actually outpace men. This last point is important. Some women are very prominent in news, such as former Conservative MP and cabinet minister, Belinda Stronach, as well as NDP MP Olivia Chow. Yet, this focus on women, or fixation in the case of Stronach, is often gendered. Women candidates sometimes receive a lot of news attention because of their novelty value, because they do not fit the bill of the traditional politician, or because of their connection to some powerful man, as in the case of Chow, whose marriage to the former NDP leader Jack Layton is mentioned in every one of her print news stories in my analyses of coverage of the 2006 Canadian federal election. While such coverage sets women apart as “different” because of their gender, likely contributing to enduring stereotypes that view men as the norm in political office, it is not clear that it would be an immediate electoral disadvantage for women. In fact, greater coverage can be beneficial for candidates, depending on the quality of the coverage.

On the more important issue of how men and women are covered in political news, the story is different. Systematic evidence is provided in Gendered News that women tend to be covered differently than their male counterparts because of their gender. Coverage of female candidates commonly fits into one of four tropes or roles, sex object, mother, pet, and iron maiden, each of which poses dangers for women’s equal representation in politics, as well as societal gender equality more generally. Indeed, to the extent that news coverage perpetuates well-entrenched, but tired stereotypes about men’s and women’s roles, abilities, and aspirations, media contribute to broader dysfunctions in how the genders see themselves and each other.

The sex object was how Belinda Stronach was consistently portrayed, with news coverage that emphasized her appearance, personal life, and glamour over all else, but also her relationship to her powerful father, the business tycoon, Frank Stronach, suggesting she was not to be taken seriously as a political figure. The iron maiden is another popular frame, and it fits with my discovery in the book that women candidates’ aggressive behaviour is exaggerated in news, while at the same time female “toughness” is implicitly criticized as “unfeminine”. This may be part of the reason for the book’s finding that news depictions of female politicians’ aggressive behaviour are actually detrimental to voters’ evaluations. When a woman goes on the offensive, voters rate her news stories more negatively, a result that was not produced for her male comparators in this portion of the study. This direct link between news coverage and public attitudes puts news media directly in the cross-hairs in assessing why women are politically under-represented.

Throughout Gendered News, caution is advised in how we interpret causes. Assigning responsibility for gendered coverage is not straight-forward. The critical insight is this: both presentation and provision matter. In other words, sometimes news is gendered at the presentation stage, as a result of media’s selective practices in the assignment, writing, and editing of stories. Indeed, what becomes a “story” in the first place is up to decision-makers at media outlets. At other times, in contrast, news coverage is gendered as a result of real differences in men’s and women’s actual behaviours. Political science, psychology, sociology, business, and other academic fields have provided outstanding scholarly work that demonstrates the systematic differences in men’s and women’s observed behaviour, and this is reflected in news coverage, particularly of women candidates’ issue priorities and positions. The provision-presentation distinction is an important insight for the study of gender and political communications, which has tended to implicitly or explicitly ignore the effects of behaviour on coverage, resulting in partial understanding of the causes of gendered coverage.

Today, whether we view the participation at the Warsaw Climate Change conference of Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader and its sole MP, or the response of Rob Ford, the mayor of Toronto, to his critics, both in November 2013, we need to be alert to the source of differences in coverage. How is gender (theirs and perhaps ours as well) shaping coverage and reception? Coverage of Ford this month, indeed since May 2013, has been gendered through and through. His responses to alleged wrongdoings have been tinged with “boys will be boys” rationalizations and self-entitled half-apologies, and his most recent, by virtually all accounts startling remarks regarding allegations that he sexually harassed a member of his staff was locker-room talk at its worst. Consistent with a particular type of high-school-jock, fraternity-house stereotype that Ford has always donned as part of his populism, provision of deeply gendered behaviour by Ford himself is at work here in the resultant media coverage. Interestingly, coverage of the Mayor’s wife, Renata Ford – much like that of Hilary Clinton in the mid-1990s after news broke of former President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern – seems fairly polarized. On the one hand, some coverage has seemed to express sympathy for her humiliation and the “stand-by-your-man” approach she’s taken, at least in public, while on the other hand, she has drawn criticism for the same. In both cases, gender stereotypes are used to frame her situation: one frame focuses on the traditional wife whose public face is a stiff upper lip and whose forgiveness is forthcoming, and the other frame emphasizes that a modern woman is weak for enduring the public humiliation and private betrayals her husband has allegedly caused.



Recommended Reading:

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant.  2013. “Women Voters, Candidates, and Legislators: A Gender Perspective on Recent Party and Electoral Politics.” In Parties, Elections, and the Future of Canadian Politics. Eds., A. Bittner and R. Koop, 119-139. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant. 2009. “Crafting a Public Image: Women MPs and the Dynamics of Media Coverage”. In Are Doors Opening Wider? Studies of Women’s Political Engagement in Canada.  ed. S. Bashevkin, 147-165. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant. 2013. Gendered News: Media Coverage and Electoral Politics in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Goodyear-Grant, Elizabeth

Goodyear-Grant, Elizabeth

Goodyear-Grant, Elizabeth

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