New Report Highlights Gender Inequality In Humanitarian Media

New research from the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) asks how often women speak within news stories about humanitarian issues – with depressingly predictable results. In this article, we provide a summary of the report, which also suggests ways of improving gender equality in media representations of the humanitarian sector.

By Carolina Are

Women are under-represented among leadership positions in the humanitarian sector. Of 33 United Nations humanitarian and deputy humanitarian coordinators in January 2018, only 11 were women. New research from HAG finds that media coverage of the sector displays even greater gender inequality – only 23% of experts and officials quoted in news stories about humanitarian issues were female.

Graphs as seen in the HAG report


The report analysed two global news media outlets – Al Jazeera and one unnamed news outlet that specialised in humanitarian news. The authors analysed all articles published by these outlets about humanitarian issues during a four-week period from 2 to 29 October 2017. The gender of the article’s author was noted, as was the gender of experts or officials quoted in the articles, such as formal spokespersons, mayors, chiefs, heads of agencies or departments and lawyers (the research did not focus on the gender of victims, refugees, residents, bystanders and the like).


The research found that women were the authors of a reasonable portion of the reports – an impressive 51% of all reports at Al Jazeera, and 39% of reports at the specialist humanitarian news organisation.

The gender of the experts and officials quoted within reports showed significant and problematic inequality.  The HAG report found that only 23% of experts and officials quoted in news stories about humanitarian issues were female. This is a greater disparity than exists within humanitarian leadership. As noted above, 33% of United Nations humanitarian and deputy humanitarian coordinators in January 2018 were women. The findings are also lower than the number of women in the most senior roles from the United Nations more broadly (27%).

The report quoted Lisa Cornish, Senior Reporter for Devex, who said that one reason for this is that media units put journalists in touch with their heads of organisation, who are often male. Gaven Morris, Director of News at the ABC, suggests that busy journalists do not want to think more broadly and “make the effort to inject fresh blood into their contact books”. This is supported by research from the 2016 Women for Media Report, which found that male authors quoted women 17% of the time; female authors quoted women 27% of the time.

What To Do?

So what to do? The report suggests five strategies to improve gender equality and female representation in humanitarian media.

  1. Acknowledge the positive: Celebrate outlets like Al Jazeera for their gender parity in reporting;
  2. Build evidence: Find and share more evidence about the gender disparity in humanitarian media; build this evidence on more sources, with more analysis, including of the portrayal of women in humanitarian media;
  3. Understand the impact: Shine a light on the impact of unequal media representation on women in humanitarian leadership;
  4. Raise awareness: The ABC found the interview time dedicated to women increased from 20% to 26% in just 12 months after its first study of gender parity – an improvement which its Director of News attributed to increased awareness. Similarly, a randomised control trial in the United States demonstrated that exposure to the science behind gender bias through training was effective in changing behaviours to address gender inequity, and concluded that such training should support the career advancement of women.
  5. Support journalists and organisations to work together:  Devex’s Lisa Cornish highlighted the importance of involving both journalists and organisations in efforts to increase female representation.  News media outlets can consider joining the UN Women Step It Up For Gender Equality Media Compact, in which media outlets are invite to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by disrupting stereotypes and biases in their reporting and increasing the number of women in the media, including in leadership roles. Resources are available to support journalists to seek out female sources, and to be mindful of the gender stereotypes that can be transmitted through media. Organisations must continue to work to strengthen gender parity at senior levels, and can be proactive in suggesting female representatives for media requests.

Read the full report here.