Seen but not heard: Women in Burmese media
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Seen but not heard: Women in Burmese media

A STORY in a mainstream Burma (Myanmar) paper tells of how over 1000 workers from a garment factory in Yangon protested for their labour rights. Two of the three sources are male, both of whom reiterate the demands of the “workers”. Were you not to look at the accompanying image of 14 women striking outside the factory you would assume most of the workers were male. What the article does not tell you is that 90 percent of garment workers in Burma are female.

This case is typical of how the media ignores women in Burmese news reporting. The landmark 2017 study “Gender in Myanmar News” conducted by our organisation, the International Media Support and Fojo Media Institute, found that women only make up 16 percent of the people heard or read about across TV, radio, print and online news.

The low representation of women as news sources and subjects is both a reflection of the absence of women in high-profile public spaces, but also the unconscious bias prevalent in news making that forgets that women too are part of societal events and issues.

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Women aboard a commuter train on the Yangon Circular Railway at the outskirts of Yangon, Burma on 13 March 2017. Source: Tuomas Lehtinen/Shutterstock

In our research, we found that men are six times more likely than women to be sourced as a spokesperson, and twelve times more likely to be sourced as an expert. When it comes to women’s views they are three times more likely to be sourced for their personal rather than professional perspectives.

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Many journalists habitually use the old line that this is because “there are no women experts or spokespersons”. Yet from our monitoring we counted over 100 professional women from government, business, academia, media and civil society who are qualified to speak about their area of expertise and were used by other journalists.

The bias is further demonstrated by the narrow range of news topics in which women’s voices outnumber those of men. These are all topics related specifically to women rather than to broader society – women in politics, women’s rights, sexual and reproductive health, women’s participation in the workforce, and gender-based violence.

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A woman dries fish in Ngapali, Rakhine State, Burma. Source: Shutterstock

On the other hand, while only 28 percent of reporters are female, 66 percent of TV presenters are female. And women are twice as likely to appear in an image in a newspaper than as a source in a story. Clearly, while a man is valued for his opinion, a woman is valued for her appearance.

Evidence of gender bias in the news undermines the common discourse that women and men are regarded and treated equally in Burmese society. Local historian Chie Ikeya argues that this was a colonial-era assessment made by British officials who noted that Burmese women did not appear to be as oppressed as their Chinese and Indian neighbours, due to the absence of practices like purdah and foot-binding. This erroneous perspective was adopted and perpetuated by post-colonial scholars and the Burmese political elite, and is still propagated today even though gender gaps are well documented.

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Burmese women are socialised at a young age to be seen and not heard. Norms such as “speak softly” and “dress modestly” set the expectation that women should be passive and restrained. Burma’s education system of rote learning, strict obedience and discouragement of critical thinking seems to suit the docile females as they generally outperform their more rambunctious male counterparts. As a result, women outnumber men in university even though in some courses they have higher entry requirements.

Yet despite being better qualified on paper than their male counterparts, as they get older and take on more responsibilities as wives and mothers, career progression slows down and we see men dominate senior and decision-making roles across the public and private sectors. Only three out of the top 100 Burmese conglomerates have a female CEO and women only represent 10 percent of MPs at the national level.

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Burma’s de-facto leader and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi waves outside the Foreign Ministry in Naypyitaw, Burma on July 6, 2017. Source: Reuters

There are still a number of successful women in decision making roles involved in politics, business and the peace process. Aung San Suu Kyi is the obvious and much quoted example of the “equality” of women in Myanmar society. But these women are the exception rather than the rule.

And in Suu Kyi’s case, it can be argued that her public profile is linked to her heritage as the daughter of General Aung San. The pattern of male leadership is portrayed and reinforced through the news media, and women and girls are repeatedly shown a world where their perspectives and experiences do not matter.

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More can be done to increase the quantity and quality of female perspectives in news. The current stories of hardship where women are seen as struggling mothers or victims of abuse merely reflect the stereotypes. The media can choose to reinforce or to challenge these stereotypes.

They can choose to raise the profile of Myanmar women and challenge stereotypes by sharing the voices and stories of women who are doing OK, who are doing their jobs, and who have views worth sharing like the men they work alongside.

Media is like oxygen to a democratic society, and as such it has the power to give life to a more accurate representation of the diversity that we are.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent