As media coverage of Covid-19 continues 24/7, it routinely ignores an important dimension of the crisis: its impact on women.
Writers — journalists, as well as opinion and commentary writers — have largely excluded women’s perspectives, their critical expertise, and the mounting evidence about how the pandemic is affecting women from Covid-19-related articles.
Women scientists called out gender bias in media coverage early in the pandemic and noted the dangers of leaning on the loudest male voices, including those who don’t have the expertise to be advising decision-makers. A September report from the International Women’s Media Foundation noted a “substantial bias towards men’s perspectives in the news gathering and news coverage of this pandemic across both the global north (the U.K. and U.S.) and the global south (India, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa),” suggesting that this is a widespread phenomenon.
Media coverage of the pandemic continues to overlook the gender dimensions of the pandemic: Women provide 70% of health care globally; there are gender differences in disease progression and gender-based disparities in access to care; the pandemic is having disproportionate effects on women of color; and the broader consequences of epidemics on reproductive, maternal, and child health.
We strongly believe that media organizations are missing out on leveraging the vast networks of women around the world who not only bear a disproportionate burden of the pandemic but who are also essential to containing the virus.
Why does it matter that women are equally represented in the news about Covid-19 and how they are portrayed in actual stories? It isn’t just a matter of representation in the media. It is also about who and what get covered, and how they get covered. While the bulk of existing evidence shows that men are more biologically susceptible to contract Covid-19 and die of it compared to women, more recent evidence suggests that we may not yet know enough about the sex differences in the disease and need to pay continuous attention to new information that highlights these differences.
Biological susceptibility aside, studies show that the impact of Covid-19 on women is greater than it is on men in terms of the burden of care; the risk of exposure from work; and economic hardship — more women than men are leaving the workforce due to the pandemic, and some will never return.
If women’s views as scientists, health care providers, public health officials, parents, and caregivers are excluded from news stories, their perspectives aren’t included in solutions that will address their particular concerns and challenges. There is a very real risk that gender inequalities will limit the success of the Covid-19 response if we are not able to address gender gaps and allow space for women’s voices and women’s stories.
An interesting analysis of U.S. media coverage of Covid-19 shows that women are underrepresented in newsrooms but craft more in-depth and informative stories than their male colleagues, and are more likely to include women as both experts and subjects in their stories. Including a gender lens can create better Covid-19 stories, no matter who writes them.
In an effort to diversify the voice of experts and incorporate the differential impact of Covid-19 on women, we have contributed to a checklist in partnership with Women in Global Health to help those writing about Covid-19. Our objective is to ensure that stories, commentaries, and opinions about the pandemic include the expertise, experiences, and concerns of women, with a focus on a diverse range of determinants of health that include gender, race, income, and geography.
Writing with awareness of and attention to intersecting biases of gender and race will strengthen the role of the media in informing the public, influencing policymakers, and ensuring that the design and delivery of Covid-19 responses are tailored to the needs of all.
Nandini Oomman is a global health and development specialist and chief executive officer of the Women’s Storytelling Salon. Kathryn Conn is a nurse, global health specialist, and chief operating officer of the Women’s Storytelling Salon. Elizabeth O’Connell is a global health strategic partnerships consultant and a member of the executive committee of the Washington, D.C., of chapter Women in Global Health.