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June 21, 2024updated 04 Jul 2024 1:20pm

Women’s voices and issues are not being heard in UK general election

Analysis of women's issues in election coverage as well as share of women voices.

By Luba Kassova

Last year we reported that UK news coverage of women-focused issues was down a fifth in five years. We wondered how much focus women-centric issues are receiving within the coverage of the general election (GE) campaign and to answer this question audience strategy consultancy AKAS analysed the online news GDELT database of stories mentioning the general election.

The analysis of 171,500 online articles from over 2,000 national and local UK news outlets (see below for full methodology) has revealed a decline in coverage that includes key gender-related terms of relevance to women, compared to the previous two GE campaign periods.

In addition, women are now less likely to be interviewed as sources, protagonists, or experts in online coverage than they were in 2017 and 2019.

Nevertheless, there is still time for journalists to expand their lens to cover parties’ plans to narrow the societal disadvantages women face. This article offers suggestions as to how.

The diminishing GE coverage of structural disadvantages that women face

Since the last general election in December 2019 progress in closing the gender pay gap has slowed dramatically, dropping a mere 0.6 percentage points from 14.9% in 2020 to 14.3% in 2023 and increasing marginally for full-time female employees from 7% in 2020 to 7.7% in 2023.

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The latest data shows that women account for only 6% of FTSE 350 CEOs and 13.8% of executive directors in the UK. Meanwhile, a survey among British women since 2019 has shown that three quarters believe that more should be done to achieve a gender balance in politics.

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Yet, despite these undisputed gender gaps, AKAS has found no GE news coverage during either the current or the previous two election campaigns that has mentioned terms such as “women’s rights”, “gender wealth gap”, “women’s pay”, or “women’s experiences”.

The term “gender pay gap” has received negligible attention in all three elections, particularly in the current one (0.01% of all coverage this year mentioned the term vs. 0.17% in 2019 and 0.15% in 2017).

Indeed, the term “gender gap” has barely been used in any of the coverage (0.01% in 2024 vs. 0.19% in 2019), highlighting how little the structural disadvantages that women face attract the attention of news outlets.

The word “women” has also declined in news coverage: whereas 10.74% of all GE-related online articles contained the term in 2019, just 6.14% do now. Use of the word “female” has similarly declined from 3.0% in 2019 to 1.6% this year.

“Gender equality” has barely been used (up from 0.05% in 2019 to 0.14% so far this year) while “gender inequality”, which featured in 0.2% of GE-related coverage in 2019, has so far disappeared from this year’s coverage.

Overall, GE coverage featuring a raft of gender-related terms of importance to women has declined from 0.63% of all GE-related coverage during 2017’s campaign to 0.37% currently.

Bar chart showing % of UK general election articles mentioning key gender equality terms. 0.63% in 2017 election campaign, 1.36% in 2019 and 0.37% in first three weeks of 2024 campaign

Earlier this month, a Metropolitan Police report revealed that one in ten people in England and Wales (predominantly women and girls) are victims of violence, warning that the scale of violence against women and girls is beyond the police’s contracting capacity. Yet the terms “violence against women” and “domestic violence” have been mentioned in just 0.48% of all GE coverage, a modest increase from 2017 and 2019. While this increase, brought about by references in some parties’ manifestos, is welcome, the level remains low compared to the endemic scale of the problem.

The term “sexual violence” has been completely absent from this year’s coverage, having received minimal attention in the previous two GE campaigns’ coverage (0.042% in 2017 and 0.027% in 2019). This absence stands against a backdrop of the vast majority of GB adults (82%) believing that more should be done in relation to talking openly about/addressing sexual misconduct and 92% of women who run having been concerned for their physical safety last year.

Women’s share of voice in GE election coverage is marginal and smaller than in previous campaigns

Women’s share of voice in news election coverage has declined considerably from the last two GE campaigns. So far, 40% of online GE-related news articles have quoted men, increasing from 29% in 2017 and 38% in 2019. By contrast, only 15% of this campaign’s articles have quoted women.

Currently, for every woman quoted in GE news coverage, 2.74 men are quoted, a ratio worse than in both previous campaigns (1:2.47 in 2019 and 1:1.68 in 2017).

The increase in men’s share of voice in the coverage of this GE campaign can partly be explained by the increased proportion of male party leaders compared to the previous two elections. However, attributing the decrease in women’s voices solely to a structurally male-dominated political scene, as journalists sometimes do, would be inaccurate.

AKAS’ analysis of men’s share of voice in GE articles that do not mention any of the main party leaders reveals a sustained prevalence of male voices, albeit at a lower ratio (2.2 men to 1 woman instead of 2.7 to 1 for all GE coverage).

What’s more, even when Theresa May was fighting the 2017 GE elections as prime minister, only 18% of stories quoted women vs. 29% that quoted men.

Regarding gender equality issues, journalism does not hold those in power sufficiently to account for the structural disadvantages that women continue to experience in the UK. Instead, the low levels of attention given to these issues suggest that UK journalism acts as a mirror to society, reflecting the prevalent public mood, party manifestos and male-favouring social norms.

For example, the word “family” has increased significantly in GE coverage (from 8.47% in 2019 to 14.65% in 2024), reflecting the general global shift towards more traditional values that emphasise the importance of the family as an institution.

Interestingly, the word “childcare”, so key to the empowerment of millions of women, has been mentioned significantly less this year than in the 2109 campaign (0.64% of GE coverage vs. 4.1%).

How to expand the journalistic lens to include more women in election coverage

With two weeks of general election-related coverage to go, there are far too many questions that reporters are yet to ask about parties’ plans to improve women’s lives. Important overarching questions would concern how policies would impact women and men differently and each party’s plans to close the existing wide gender gaps. Questions abound with regard to each, for example:

Health

What will parties do to improve women’s reproductive healthcare at different life stages, covering contraception, maternity care, childcare, and menopause? How will parties support women’s and men’s differing needs in mental health and wellbeing?

Safety

How will parties curtail physical and online violence, harassment, threats and stalking, which affect women disproportionately to men?

Pay

How will parties close the pay gap for women across different age groups? Or reduce the broader enormous wealth gap (now $105trn worldwide, according to a recent Oxfam report), including the pension gap? What childcare programmes are they envisaging? How will they combat sick pay inequality?

Leadership/power

How will parties narrow the leadership gap, which is currently overwhelmingly in favour of men in all major sectors?

To seek answers to these and other questions and given that only 30% of MP candidates are women (down from 34.8% currently), journalists must be deliberate in their sourcing of experts, ensuring that for every male politician/story protagonist, reporters interview a woman expert from each party or civil society.

If pressed for time, use source lists of women experts like this one. Trading off seniority for deep expertise is a safe way of capturing much-needed women’s perspectives in the remaining weeks of GE coverage.

Note on GDELT methodology: The GDELT Project (The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone) is a searchable database of news articles and events published in multiple languages around the world. GDELT Summary is the front-end interface of the searchable tool which enables searches of articles from 2017 to the present day using RSS feeds from news sites worldwide. The UK GDELT tracks online articles from over 2,000 news and information providers including BBC News, ITV News, Sky News, The Guardian, The Independent, The I, The Times, The Telegraph, The Mirror, The Daily Star, The Express, The Metros, and nations brands in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as local news providers. Some notable exceptions appear to be  The Sun and the FT. If that is the case, they will be added to the database in the updated version of GDELT in Summer 2024.

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