“Where are the women experts on covid-19? Mostly missing”, says the BMJ and many others  

By Luciana Gurgel | MediaTalks, London

In the book The Fleet Street Girls, journalist Julie Welch describes the barriers broken by women in the 70’s,  at a time when discrimination was so great that nearby pubs only served men. Welch paved the way for professionals like Katharine Viner, who runs The Guardian, and Roula Khalaf, editor in chief of the Financial Times.

But while some women reached  top positions in the newsrooms, representation in the news media remains a challenge.  The issue was exposed by several researches held since the beginning of the pandemic, showing that scientists and doctors have been quoted much less frequently than their male colleagues in stories on the coronavirus. 

Women are missing from most Covid-19 news stories, says a Report commissioned by The Gates Foundation

” Women in five of the six analysed countries are largely locked out of COVID- 19/coronavirus-related decision making at a national level (100% of the COVID-19 response decision-making group in the UK are men, 93% in the US, 92% in Nigeria, 86% in India, 80% in Kenya and 50% in South Africa).

In the executive summary, Kassova explains that the report has examined the news coverage of the COVID-19/coronavirus story through the lenses of three indicators of gender equality: women as sources of news expertise; news stories leading with women protagonists; and coverage of gender equality issues.

The key findings: 

Every individual woman’s voice in the news on Covid- 19 is drowned out by the voices of at least three, four, or five men.

The women who are given a platform in the Covid-19/coronavirus story are rarely portrayed as authoritative experts or as empowered individuals but more frequently as sources of personal opinion or as victims/people affected by the disease.

The news coverage of COVID-19/coronavirus is mostly framed in hard factual terms, leaving little space for the human- centered journalistic approach that reflects women’s news needs more closely. Given the deeply political nature of the COVID-19 crisis, women’s structural marginalization in the political leadership roles established in response to the crisis locks in the suppression of women’s voices in the story.

This in turn is reflected in a smaller news share for women, which may be exacerbated by journalists’ tendency in a time of crisis to revert back to ‘established sources’ who are significantly more likely to be men.

The insights from the report have led to the creation of 21 recommendations which aim to support news providers who wish to amplify the substantially muted voices of women in news coverage of the Covid-19. 

Luba Kassova gave a speeech on the research in an event promoted by The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism,  that can be watched here.







In  Switzerland and in the United Kingdon, researches also found the same situation. 



“Where are the women experts on covid-19? Mostly missing”, says the BMJ 

In an article published in June, the British Medial Journal stated that “most healthcare workers are women but few appear as experts in medical journals, on television news, or in the popular press”.  And reminded a key issue:  that even fewer are in the rooms where decisions are made.

It quoted the Women in Global Health, which says that women make up only 20% of the WHO Emergency Committee on covid-19 and 16% of the WHO-China joint mission on covid-19, despite women accounting for 70% of the global health workforce on clinical frontlines.

And recognises that “across BMJ’s 70 specialty journals there is a pre-existing inequity: 39% of all publications in 2019 across these journals had a female first author (53% male, 8% unknown).”

BMJ found out that the situation has worsened since the onset of Covid-19:

” For covid-19 related articles published in 2020, the proportion of female first authors was lower (26% female, 60% male, 14% unknown). Many of these articles are editorials (20% of all BMJ specialty journals’ covid-19 publications) and 82% of these had male first authors.

First authorship of 161 research papers published in The BMJ in 2019 was predominantly male (61% male, 37% female, 1% unknown) and has remained so for the 13 articles on covid-19 published in 2020 (62% male, 38% female). However, first authorship of the 174 editorials published in 2019 was more equitable (52% male, 48% female) but female first authorship has dipped slightly (44% female) for the 25 editorials on covid-19 in 2020 as we strived to find female editorialists in the pandemic.

The article justifies by saying that “In a rapidly changing pandemic, editors are under pressure to produce high quality content fast. Journal editors who need reviewers or editorialists may fall prey to biases that reinforce rather than challenge existing inequalities: we turn to the seeming safety of “tried and true” experts who are available to meet tight deadlines, as opposed to spending our time and resources seeking out less prominent, and available voices. “

And offers a solution:

“We are committed to seeking out women experts, commentators, and authors, and to encourage all editors to speak up when the same male voices are being suggested by default. We have searched our reviewer and author databases for women with relevant expertise so that we have a rapid source of women experts. We want to create opportunities for women to contribute to the covid-19 discourse.  “

Reactions from doctors and scientists 

While equality is not achieved, there are those who feel intimidated and those who  react.

“We’re done”, said a group of 35 scientists in May, in an article  on The World University Ranking. In “Women in science are battling both Covid-19 and the patriarchy“, the scientists claimed that “the pandemic has worsened longstanding sexist and racist inequalities in science”. 

“Women are advising policymakers, designing clinical trials, coordinating field studies and leading data collection and analysis, but you would never know it from the media coverage of the pandemic. More than ever before, epidemiologists, virologists, and clinicians are communicating with journalists and the public about their science. But highly visible articles in The New York Times and other media outlets about the scientists involved in the response are biased towards men, even though there are plenty of qualified women on the frontlines of the Covid-19 response that could easily be identified by checking author lists and scientific websites”.

“As women who are deeply involved in Covid-19 science, it has become clear to us that our expertise means little when it comes to real decision-making in this public health emergency. We are frustrated that our work is being overlooked and misrepresented in the media. We’re exhausted knowing that after this is all over we will have a powerful fight on our hands to reclaim the professional ground that is slipping away from us during this emergency”.

“Journalists will ask us who to interview and if we can provide a list of options. The answer is yes, of course. There are lists of female experts; there are author lists on scientific papers; and there are academic websites. These exist precisely because we have been fighting for years to progress science in spite of patriarchal barriers. We wish that we could now focus on fighting Covid-19″

Still a lot to be done. Acknowledging the issue, tough, has always been the first step to solve any problem. 

Luciana Gurgel, MediaTalks by J&Cia Editor-In-Chief, is a Brazilian journalist based in London. She begun her editorial career at O Globo, one of the leading Brazilian media organisations. Later she founded (along with Aldo de Luca) Publicom, a successful corporate communications agency, acquired in 2016 by Weber Shandwick (IPG Group). In London, she has been working as news correspondent for Brazilian media – MyNews Channel, J&Cia – to which she writes a weekly column on trends and issue related to the news industry. The column originated  a separate platform, in association with Jornalistas Editora.

luciana@jornalistasecia.com.br  | @lcnqgur


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