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Female MPs in the press: slated or ignored

A new study hints at sexism in the press.

Female MPs photographed outside Parliament in May to campaign for the return of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria.
Female MPs photographed outside Parliament in May to campaign for the return of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria. Photo: Getty

Female politicians are presented more negatively in the press than their male counterparts, and receive less coverage overall, a recent academic study has revealed.

The investigation analysed newspaper reports covering female MPs, using samples from the election years 1992, 2002 and 2012. The researchers dug through archives of papers to both the left and right of the political spectrum, including the Guardian, Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Mirror.

It transpired that although all politicians receive negative coverage, female politicians were more likely to be presented in a dim light.

In 2012, Conservative women were twice as likely as their male counterparts to receive bad press.

Labour women were four times more likely to be slammed in the press than their male colleagues; in their 2012 sample of press cuttings, the researchers found no positive coverage of female Labour politicians at all.

Female Liberal Democrats were generally ignored by the newspapers altogether that year.

The research also identified a regressive trend for media representation for female politicians of all political stripes.

Since 1992 there has been a decline in the amount of news coverage women MPs receive relative to their proportional numbers in Parliament. By 2012 they were being quoted less in the press too.

The pair conducting the research, Deidre O’Neill, a journalism lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, and Dr Heather Savigny, a lecturer in politics at Bournemouth University’s Media School, also examined why female politicians receive worse coverage.

They argued that the representation of female politicians deviates from a "male norm", the pervasive nation that men are assumed to stand for the whole population.

The duo called for print journalists to be conscious of including women in media coverage and reflect on how they present women. They recommended the creation of a media monitoring group, comprising politicians, media representatives and academics.

Savigny said: “We are not hearing female politicians’ voices as often as we might expect. This is not good news for our press or the state of our politics.  This press rep­resentation of women that sometimes serves to suggest politics is a ‘man’s game’, where women are regarded as the aberrant, exception to the rule, can alienate women representatives and likely future candidates."

She added that the invidious trend affects the democratic process, whereby women voters feel unrepresented in Parliament and turn away from political engagement."

O'Neill added: "Within society, many factors already militate against women entering public life. The regressive trends highlighted by our findings, taken in context with other media developments, such as the rise of internet trolls churning out appalling misogynist abuse and rape and death threats to women who have aired views or campaigned publicly creates a climate that makes it more difficult for women and which can put competent women off taking public office."