Simply Noting Discrimination Against Women is No Longer Sufficient

08. February, 2005


Astrida Neimane

Foto: B. Kolesnikovs

A Review of Three Reports on Women and Political Participation from Denmark, Italy and Estonia: The hand-bag, the witch and the blue-eyed blondes: Mass Media in (Re)Distribution of Power (PDF) Research on governance: women and men politicians' equality (PDF) Mass media in redistribution of power (PDF)

The discussion of women’s political participation is nothing new. This issue has been part of public discourse in Latvia since the restoration of independence in the early nineties, and on the global agenda since Western feminism’s heyday forty years ago. Somehow, we have always presumed that women’s participation in decision-making processes would grow in quantity and quality alongside the maturing of our democratic processes and continued awareness raising for and through mass media. But is this what has happened? Despite the fact that the number of countries with more than 30% women in their parliaments has increased in the last few years (from 9 in 2001 to 16 in 2004), these achievements in many so-called Western democracies have nonetheless stagnated, and, in some instances, attitudes seem to be becoming increasingly negative (see, for example, Estonia’s report). It seems we should conclude that the progress we’ve up to the present is far from secure.

How is this possible? Considering how much time we spend in front of the television and the extent to which we rely on the TV as a source of information (as the Italian report reminds us), it seems worth asking what role the media play in promoting (or deterring) women’s political participation. And what other factors might influence progress towards a more equal distribution of power? What do female and male politicians, other experts and the general public think about these issues? This review takes a look at reports from Denmark (The Handbag, the Witch and the Blue-Eyed Blondes), Italy (Mass Media and the Redistribution of Power) and Estonia (Research on Governance: Women and Men Politicians’ Equality) which attempt, at least in part, to find answers to these questions. (A similar report was also produced in Latvia. The review of Women and Men in Governance can be found at latvian version). All of these reports were commissioned as part of an EU project called Mass Media and the (Re)Distribution of Power.[1]

While the divergent methodologies and specific research questions of the three reports make a direct comparison somewhat problematic, we can nonetheless assume that they all had one overarching goal in common: to better understand the situation of women in the distribution of political power, and how this situation might be improved. This type of report can be interesting to a variety of audiences on all sorts of levels, but it seems that if we really want to push progress forward, then (at least in my opinion), contemporary reports in this area need to fulfill a baseline of five criteria: (1) First, the report needs to present an overview of the current situation in the cultural and historical context of the respective country. (2) Moreover, the report should critically analyze the situation, paying specific attention to why current problems exist and what negative consequences they might have both for the governance sector and national human development in general. This requires a pointed effort to establish the links between the situation being researched and social development more broadly. For example, these reports might ask: How do stereotypes influence individuals’ behaviour? What losses (not only economic, but also social and cultural) might be incurred if women are not fully integrated into decision-making processes? Even more salient is (3) to provide concrete ideas on how to improve the situation. At the very least, key questions should be raised for future follow-up.

Furthermore, given that we’ve been doing this sort of research for decades now, today it seems important that we (4) offer something new to the debate – something we haven’t read or perhaps considered earlier. If thirty years ago it was crucial to raise the issues of women’s low political participation and female stereotypes in the media as ones worth discussing at all, then today we should be able to move several steps further. This includes being careful not to simplify the situation and trying to make sense of the many paradoxes it sometimes presents. (For example: Is women’s participation similar at all levels of governance? Do all media portray women politicians identically? Do the values openly proclaimed by society gel with its behaviour – both at the polls and in demanding a certain type of information from media?) And finally, we should be (5) offering up more sophisiticated terms of analysis, for the meaning of concepts such as rights, discrimination and feminine/masculine are no longer self-evident (if they ever were!). For at least ten or fifteen years now, it has been clear that all women, both within the feminist movement and in society more broadly, do not necessarily share the same hopes and goals (nor do all men, for that matter). Therefore it is difficult and even counterproductive to speak of what women need or want. This results in the misleading simplification of a complex situation and the further propagation (rather than eradication) of stereotypes. Simply put, it is no longer sufficient for contemporary research in this area to simply report (and even prove) that discrimination against women exists. (If that were all we needed to do, this problem would have been solved years ago!)

A good research report needs to be more than an interesting read; it should be a concrete contribution towards improving the situation. To what extent did the three reports under review fulfil these criteria?

As pertains to the first point, the authors of all three reports successfully situate them in their own contexts and in fact overturn some stereotypes about gender equality that international readers may hold about each country. For example, while many people probably perceive Italy as a stereotypically macho nation, it is interesting to note, according to the report, that female stereotypes are perceived more positively here than in many Protestant countries. This is linked to the prominent place of the Virgin Mary in the cultural imaginary and the respect held for female religious orders. In other words, while female stereotypes certainly exist, the stereotypical female is a strong, well-respected figure. Denmark’s report, for its part, overturns certain stereotypes about gender equality in Nordic countries. Mentioned here is a survey conducted in Sweden in 2004, where 6 out of 10 female parliamentarians reported that they had been subjected to discrimination in their place of work – despite gender parity in the Swedish parliament. The authors of the Danish report suggest that similar results might be uncovered in Denmark as well. This serves as a salient reminder of the importance of the quality of gender equality, rather than focusing solely on its quantitative aspects. Moreover this underlines the challenges that are faced even by gender equality veterans in securing lasting results.

The Estonian report also reveals a very interesting fact: While we often assume that it is the dinosaur generation (i.e. older people already set in their ways) that most opposes more liberal attitudes towards gender equality, Estonia’s report paints a slightly different picture. The authors report on a previously conducted survey that interviewed young, university-educated men with political ambitions about their thoughts on these issues. The responses were no less than shocking to me. According to these young men, it is a woman’s right to work outside the home, yet once she has children she must understand that the father or the government is not going to raise the child, and therefore she must abandon her career. If this is how our future political elite thinks, than we really do have something to worry about! (At the same time it should be noted that female politicians interviewed for this report contradict these revelations, stating that the situation would change once a new generation came to power. Unfortunately the authors of the Estonian report do not comment on or analyze these contradictions. Moreover, the Danish report stresses that negative attitudes towards gender equality within the parliament for the most part come from older men).

If we turn now to examine the second criterion (i.e. in-depth analysis of cause and effect), this is where some of the weaknesses in these reports are most evident. While it is certainly interesting to read about the experience of Danish female parliamentarians in dealing with the media, unfortunately this report does not offer any thorough or sustained analsyis of discrimination against women in positions of power, their stereotypification in the media and how this impacts on social development in the country more broadly. As the authors themselves lay out, the report’s main objective is to examine what part gender plays in the domain between the media, politics and the politicians and to look closer into which gender stereotypes there are in the Danish media when female politicians are referred to. Although these are indeed important questions, we already more or less know the answers. Greater emphasis on critical analysis and less ink devoted to quoting female politicians (on matters not even always related to gender equality and stereotypes) would have made this report a more effective advocacy tool.

From a critical analysis point of view, the Italian report offers several interesting insights into the issues of stereotypes and gender. For example, a wide range of academic literature is surveyed in order to tease out the mechanics of how stereotypes influence individuals’ (including voters’ and politicians’) actual behaviour. It is disappointing, however, that these rigorous theories remain, for the most part, at the theoretical level. When the report finally turns to its analysis of the Italian media (an examination of television journal-type programmes that include female politicians as guests), the analysis is solely semiotic (i.e. the situations are anlayzed as texts or configuations of meaningful signs). As the authors themselves explain, the goal is not to uncover how the participants themselves understood their situations, or how that might impact the actual division of political power. In contrast, one of the Danish report’s most positive aspects is that it gives female politicians voice to explain how they have, in some cases, deliberately manipulated the media or their positioning as female to their own professional advantage. In the Italian report, however, such a possibility is precluded – since the television programmes are analyzed as static texts rather than as events in the context of a broader political-professional context, the programme guests with feminine mannerisms are simply relegated to the role of victim. In the end, we are presented with an innovative and enlightening academic analysis, but one which unfortunately has limited practical applicability, if our goal is to understand how to better promote the role of women in the distribution of power.

Turning now to the third criterion (concrete recommendations), neither the Danish nor Italian reports have much to offer in this department. To be fair, the presentation of recommendations may not have been part of their concrete research objectives, yet, it seems that without this forward-looking approach, the reports’ practical use value is seriously hampered. The Estonian report has more to offer on this point, primarily stressing the need for public awareness and attitudinal changes in order to improve the current situation. (Yet, it begs noting, we have been calling for such action for several decades now! But perhaps the need to keep repeating these same recommendations attests to their sustained importance.) Another important recommendation mentioned here is the need for changes to political party guidelines. I would suggest further concrete development of this important point.

And now we come to the fourth and fifth criteria suggested above, where both positive and negative points were found in all three reports. The innovative (although unfortuantely not entirely successful) approach to media analysis of the Italian report was already mentioned above. This report does, however, deserve praise for its contribution to expanding the terms of the debate on gender equality and stereotypes. For example, the authors suggest and define helpful concepts such as modern (as opposed to traditional) sexism, which rejects altogether the notion that women are discriminated against these days. Moreover hostile sexism (women are lesser than men) is differentiated from benevolent sexism (women need to be protected). This report also offers an in-depth analysis of the idea of stereotype, and reminds readers that we all rely on stereotypes to make sense of our world – and thus any attempt to eradicate them wholesale would be foolhardy. While it is probably too long and theoretical, the report’s second section on stereotypes and related models of behaviour would be a particularly relevant read for those who might think that while unpleasant, stereotypes are ultimately harmless.

While on the subject of stereotypes, it needs to be mentioned that there are also moments when the reports might (inadvertently) uphold them rather than challenge them. For example, in section 5.3.2. of the Danish report, the authors conclude that the media treat men as serious tactitions while women are seen as hysterical. Yet, in reading the example on which they base this conclusion, it appears that this particular woman was called permanently exasperated by the media. While not particularly positive, this is still a far cry from hysterical. While probably a case of liberal interpretation by the author, to my mind this is an unjustified exaggeration. (It is also possible that the English language translation is at fault here, but this seems unlikely. It does bear mentioning, however, that the very poor translation does not promote a transparent understanding or appreciation of the report). In this sort of research, it is crucial to avoid oversimplifying the situation, particularly if the goal is to convince certain opponents (including journalists) of the worth of our cause.

At the same time it is worth mentioning another positive aspect of the Danish report, which makes a particular effort not to lump all women together as a homogenous group. The possibility that age may be more important than sex is mentioned several times, and the challenges facing younger female politicians are differentiated from those of their more experienced, older colleagues. In the same vein, the Italian report notes the need to analyze issues of gender and media from the standpoint of ethnicity, stressing the experience of new immigrants in particular (although this analysis is not taken up any further in this particular report).

While the recommendations offered in the Estonian report remain somewhat underdeveloped, the authors nonetheless raise some very key questions for further discussion. For example, in section 4.2.4. of the report where patriarchal attitudes in Estonia are discussed, the authors ask: How different is Estonia with her patriarchal views among Eastern European coutnries and why is there such opposition to gender quotas and feminism? And even more interesting – they wonder why the liberal attitudes that have bloomed in many social spheres in Estonia since the collapse of the Soviet Union have not taken root in relation to gender equality. The authors admit that they do not have any answers to these questions yet, but it would be very worthwhile to follow-up on these conundrums, and not only in Estonia.

Finally, readers are again reminded that a similar research report has also been produced in Latvia. Completely objectively speaking, Latvia’s report comes closest to successfully fulfilling these five above-mentioned and discussed criteria. Of particular note is the forward-looking approach offered by this report. Yet, each of the reports discussed here has its own specific contributions to contintued discussion and debate on issues of gender equality and the distribution of power, particularly in offering us innovative analytical models and new ways of looking at these questions – even if these approaches did not always translate into practically applicable results.


[1] Please note that this review does not consider the Estonian report specifically on mass media Mass Media in (Re)distribution Of Power. Moreover, the conclusion of this review compares the reports only to Latvia’s report on governance, as my earlier review on Latvia’s report did not include a review of Latvia’s report on mass media (review available here). A total of 6 national reports were conducted in the context of this project (two in both Latvia and Estonia, but only one in both Denmark and Italy). raksts

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