Screening Gender Means Good Business:

Fair Gender Portrayal As An Added Value and Competitive Advantage for European Public Broadcasting

Minna Aslama
Implementation Expert, Screening Gender Project
Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE)
University of Helsinki, Department of Communication

1. Introduction: How Feminism Became Good Business in Broadcasting

Can “feminism“ be good business? Is gender portrayal in programming important for journalists and audiences? Can fair and diverse representation of women and men bring added-value and competitive advantage to broadcasting corporations? The answer to these questions is yes, at least for six northern European public broadcasting companies: YLE (Finland), SVT (Sweden), NRK (Norway), NOS (The Netherlands), ZDF (Germany) and DR (Denmark)1. Together, these companies produced the training kit Screening Gender, to help promote good practice in gender portrayal on television. Their approach suggests not only that diversity in gender portrayal is one of the characteristics of quality programming, but that it makes good business sense for public service broadcasters.

The training kit is a concrete effort to use equality policies and theories about media and gender to the advantage of both audiences and broadcasters. Its focus is the relationship between changing European media markets, national and international equality policies, and the current picture of television programming from a gender-oriented perspective all within the context of public broadcasting in Europe.

2. Equality Policies and Public Broadcasting in Europe

In most European countries, the debate about gender portrayal is not rooted in business-oriented thinking. Rather, most emphasis has been placed on the traditions and national policies of equal opportunities in the workplace. An early forum for such discussion was the Steering Committee on Equal Opportunities in Broadcasting (1986–96). Established by the European Commission, this brought together representatives of public and private broadcasting companies from the European Union, to exchange experiences and promote good practice in employment and career development opportunities. Although the Steering Committee regularly discussed the need for a similar arena for information exchange on content related matters, this was never formed. There was simply too little practical experience to frame such a forum.

However, in early 1990s individual companies began to take seriously the need for change in the portrayal of men and women in programme content. For example, in 1991 NOS (Netherlands) formed a Gender Portrayal Department to conduct research and training work which is still on-going. In YLE (Finland), a five-year initiative called the Portrayal of Women and Men Project was launched in 1994. It produced and commissioned studies, from news to entertainment programming and audience research, and also organised in-house seminars and learning-by-doing training events. Numerous other European companies addressed the issue by organising special events and/or research.

Then in 1995, two international policy documents came into being which required commitment from European public broadcasters: The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Platform for Action (Section J: The Media), and the European Union / European Broadcasting Union Charter on Equal Opportunities for Women in Broadcasting, the latter signed by representatives of approximately 40 European broadcasting companies2. Although these documents are more general guidelines than commitments to specific actions, they represent an understanding that gender portrayal is a crucial element in how the media represent reality, and indeed they acknowledge the need to improve and diversify media contents. Because the issue was made internationally relevant and brought into public discussion, various individual broadcasting companies have woken up to this reality through analysis of their own programming and audiences. Prompted by these developments, YLE, SVT, NRK, DR, NOS and ZDF began a collaboration which in 1997 resulted in Screening Gender a three-year project to produce a training kit for television. The project was co-financed under the European Commission's Fourth Community Action Programme on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men.

3. Society is Changing – The Media are Not?

Research Results on Gender Portrayal in Northern European Television

The developments just described are an indication to European broadcasting companies that our societies are changing, in terms not only of social demographics but also of public concern about the ways gender is portrayed in the media. Moreover, research shows that the perception of northern European countries as “equality flagships“ is not reflected in media content. In Finland, for example, women have traditionally had a strong presence in the public sphere. For some years, they have formed the majority in universities (54% in 1997), they comprise 47.6 % of the labour force (1996), and are well represented in the political arena. In 1995, women represented 33.5% of MPs in the Finnish Parliament; in 1996, they comprised 50% of the Finnish Euro-MPs3. Yet YLE research from 1995 showed that women accounted for only 21% of the “actors“ in Finnish television news, the most official and public form of television (Halonen 1995). This result matches the average for 71 countries world-wide, according to the 1995 global monitoring study Women‘s Participation in the News (MediaWatch 1995).

When the Screening Gender participating organisations began co-operation on gender issues in the mid 1990s, they agreed on the need to obtain an overview of how women and men are portrayed in their programming. The rationale was to find out if and how these companies, with similar public broadcasting philosophies and cultural backgrounds, differ in terms of gender portrayal. The result was Who Speaks on Television4, research based on a constructed week of television output in late 1997. A total of 371 hours of the partner companies‘ prime-time programming was analysed. The main finding is that only 32% of all participants in northern European television are women. The various companies differ only slightly, as illustrated in the graph below:

Another striking finding is that although women‘s participation in decision-making and public life in these countries is very high – representation of women in the national parliaments, for example, ranges from 31% in Germany to 43% in Sweden5 - women were most often portrayed in roles equated with low social status: 47% of “ordinary citizens“ and 37% of victims were women, whereas men comprised the great majority of politicians (72%) and experts (80%).

The largest female participation is found in programmes with traditional “women‘s topics“, such as human relations, family affairs, social and health issues. Women are least represented in programmes dealing with crime, technology/science and sports. Overall, sports programming shows the smallest proportion of women (9%), while children‘s and youth programming proves to be the most balanced (44% women). There is also a definite age factor: the younger the woman, the more likely she is to appear on the screen. The slight majority (51%) of those 19 years old or younger are women, but the figure declines dramatically with age: out of the 20–34 year-olds, 43% are women; of the 35–49 year-olds, 32% are women; and of the over 50 year-olds, only 20% are women.

4. Why Do the Media Need to Change? For Survival.

Do these research results matter? Of course in a traditionally feminist sense they would, since they show that the media do not reflect social reality. This, however, is not a sufficient argument for a broadcasting company, let alone an individual programme-maker with a deadline to meet. Journalists often respond to concerns about gender portrayal with arguments based on their own programme-making logic: the media cannot represent every aspect of social reality and certain topics require the presence of men (“there are no women prime ministers in Finland“). Another common claim is that time frame and resources are limited (“I would have loved to interview an expert woman, but they are harder to find than men“).

There is, however, a strong argument for trying to help programme-makers overcome these obstacles - namely the business-minded search for satisfied customers. Like other public broadcasters concerned by the fragmentation of media markets and audiences, YLE has conducted studies of the characteristics and preferences of various female and male audiences (e.g. Jääsaari & Sarkkinen 1998). The research indicates that diverse and varied gender portrayal means more engaging programming for viewers and listeners. For instance, a focus group study of TV news viewers (Aslama 1995) shows that audiences are tired of the standardised middle-class-and-aged-men-in-suits on the news, and would appreciate a broader approach that helps them connect the news to their everyday lives. Another YLE-commissioned study of prime-time programming and its audiences (Nikunen et al. 1996) makes it clear that more varied and non-stereotypical gender representation is mostly found in fiction and entertainment and that, although this is one of the key attractions for different audience groups, until now it is commercial television which has noticed the phenomenon and has addressed it more effectively than public broadcasting. Moreover the fact that audiences actively search for ’identification opportunities‘, and that such opportunities are more limited for women than for men, is convincingly demonstrated by a 1995 NOS study of television drama (NOS Gender Portrayal Department 1995). These issues are explored further in a YLE focus group study of the need for “women‘s programmes“ on television. For example, that study indicates that although audiences are accustomed to programme segmenting by gender, they have slowly begun to resent the traditional dichotomy between factual programmes as a male domain and entertainment/fiction targeted at women (Aslama & Jääsaari 1999).

The lesson learned is that not only have the structures of societies changed more rapidly than their images in the media, but that the taste of various audiences regarding gender portrayal seems less traditional than actual programme output. Since public broadcasting faces exponentially increasing competition and the internationalisation of their markets, and because audiences have simultaneously split into smaller segments that can select between ever more channels and programming, the entire legitimisation of publicly funded media is now questioned in public debate. Success depends on diversification in comparison with commercial broadcasting; and here the public service traditions of diversity and equality may be seen as tools to appeal to both broad and small target audience segments, putting fair gender portrayal to the fore.

5. Screening Gender – From Theory to Practice

The training kit Screening Gender aims to bridge the gaps between all the issues discussed here. It is rooted in the strong equality and diversity policies and legislation of northern European public broadcasting; it acknowledges the skewed representation of women and men in current media output; and it recognises the value of diverse gender representation as a quality criterion for public broadcasting. But this alone does not automatically translate into higher quality programming with an emphasis on fair gender portrayal. Thus, the aim of the training kit is to go to the heart of programme production and to provide programme makers with examples which will provoke discussion, and which may suggest alternative ways of doing their work.

One of the greatest challenges has been to create training tools that relate to programme-makers‘ everyday, concrete practices, instead of taking a lecture-like, distanced and policy-oriented approach. Pilot testing of the kit has shown that the quality criterion of equality/diversity in public broadcasting is not a matter of theory, but something that programme-makers and other media professionals accept as crucial in today‘s northern European societies. Media professionals themselves have remarked that by paying closer attention to gender, one can often reframe other production routines as well, which in turn results in more innovative and competitive programming.

6. Screening Diversity – The Future

This international co-operation has shown that what is at issue concerns not just single programmes or journalists, but reflects a phenomenon that is similar and shared across northern Europe. Moreover, co-operation across national borders has increased the public visibility of the partner companies nationally and internationally, and has helped them to build their company images as gender-concerned, gender-sensitive and innovation-oriented.

In the European unifying market where public broadcasting still comprises 40% of all viewing, but where digitalisation and commercialisation will increase dramatically within the next few years (Silvo 1998), this kind of work is essential in pin-pointing the strengths and potential of public broadcasting. Digitalisation will mean hundreds, if not thousands, of new European-wide public and private channels. At the same time, this means that audiences are less unified and more scattered in their viewing practices. While some new channels may be targeted at women (e.g. UK Living, Teva in France, or TM3 in Germany), their philosophy is likely to be based on pure market principles, aimed at attracting those women with the greatest purchasing power. Such an approach does not consider equality as a general quality criterion in programming, but may result in televised ghettos for “women‘s issues“ and is likely to define those issues in a very traditional and stereotyped way. This, in turn, could leave unexplored the interests and realities of many small audience groups.

The Screening Gender project has highlighted another concern in this changing media situation: there seems to be a need from the programme-makers‘ side to find tools to deal with their new, fragmented and multicultural social environment. Thus, discussions about gender stimulate discussions about other aspects of programme-making that will become increasingly challenging throughout European broadcasting. Screening Gender, then, is the first step and attempt, under one specific theme, to make diversity become good business for public broadcasting companies.

  1. Yleisradio Oy (YLE), Sveriges Television (SVT), Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK), Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (NOS) and Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF). Danmarks Radio (DR) participated in the first year of the three-year project (1997–2000). See the project‘s website
  2. Note: both documents can be accessed through the project website
  3. Source: Statistics of Finland 1999: Women and Men in Finland, see
  4. The Who Speaks research report can be accessed through the project website:
  5. 1998 figures compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union; see Women of Europe Newsletter, no. 87, 1999


Aslama, Minna 1995. Katsojien arvioita television ihmiskuvasta. [Viewers‘ assessments of the image of people in television news]. In Sana, Elina (ed.). Naiset, miehet ja uutiset [Women, men and the news]. Publications of the Equality Committee, Series A:1/1995. Finnish Broadcasting Company, Helsinki.

Aslama, Minna & Jääsaari, Johanna 1999. Women Audiences and Gender Portrayal on TV. A Finnish Case Study. Audience Research Reports 19/99. Finnish Broadcasting Company, Helsinki.

Halonen-Irma-Kaarina 1995. Suomenkielisten televisiouutisten nais- ja mieskuva. [Images of women and men in the Finnish-language television news]. In Sana, Elina (ed.). Naiset, miehet ja uutiset [Women, men and the news]. Publications of the Equality Committee, Series A:1/1995. Finnish Broadcasting Company, Helsinki.

Jääsaari, Johanna & Sarkkinen, Raija 1998. Radion ja television nais- ja miesyleisöt. [Women and men audiences of radio and television]. Audience research market studies 38/1998. Finnish Broadcasting Company, Helsinki.

MediaWatch 1995. Women‘s Participation in the News. Global Media Monitoring Project. MediaWatch, Toronto.

Nikunen, Kaarina, Ruoho, Iiris & Valaskivi, Katja 1996. Nainen viihteenä, mies viihdyttäjänä – viihtyykö katsoja? [Man the entertainer versus Woman the figure of fun...]. Publications of the Equality Committee, Series A:1/1996. Finnish Broadcasting Company, Helsinki.

NOS Gender Portrayal Department 1995. Who‘s Whose Favourite: Viewer Identification With Female and Male Characters in Television Drama. NOS Gender Portrayal Department, Hilversum.

Silvo, Ismo 1998. Eurooppalaisen television eteneminen kohti digitaalikautta. [The progress of European television towards digitalization]. In Joukkoviestimet – Finnish Mass Media 1998. Kulttuuri ja viestintä – Culture and the media series 1998:1. Statistics Finland, Helsinki.

Who Speaks in Television? An international study on female participation in television programmes. DR, SVT, YLE, NOS, NRK & ZDF 1998.

Women and Men in Finland. Statistics of Finland

Women of Europe Newsletter, No. 87, July/August 1999.