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Media coverage, attitudes may contribute to lack of women in Vietnamese leadership

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

LAWRENCE — Vietnam has made remarkable strides in recent decades, transitioning from widespread poverty to a middle-income country. While the nation has also made progress in promoting gender equality, it still has far to go in considering women equal and representing them as competent leaders in the media, a new study has found.

Oxfam in Vietnam, an affiliation of Oxfam International, a confederation dedicated to fighting poverty, commissioned a group of University of Kansas researchers to examine how female leaders are represented in Vietnamese media and how stereotypes are represented in news coverage. They found that men are cited as sources at a much greater rate than women, coverage focuses much more on female leaders’ physical appearances and roles within the family, and journalists are influenced by their own biases in the coverage.

Hong Tien Vu, assistant professor of journalism, said an Oxfam in Vietnam research project from 2014 noted a declining number of women in the country’s national assembly. The organization approached Vu, a former Oxfam communications coordinator and Associated Press reporter in his native Vietnam, and colleagues to find out more about the media’s role in the disparity. Researchers asked voters in three provinces during the initial study who they would vote for in several races.

“Usually they picked a male candidate. When asked why, they said, ‘Men usually have more leadership skills, and it would be very difficult for women because they have to take care of their families and it would be culturally and socially inappropriate for women to do that and be in leadership roles,’” Vu said.

When asked why they held those beliefs, respondents frequently cited media coverage. Vu and co-authors Hue Trong Duong, doctoral student at the University of Georgia, and Barbara Barnett and Tien-Tsung Lee, associate professors of journalism at KU, began their newest project with a media analysis of news stories about women leaders from influential Vietnamese media. Little media research had been previously conducted in the country. The researchers found news coverage of female leaders frequently focused on personal information such as their physical appearance and dress, and family issues, such as whether they spent enough time with their children, if they could balance family and work, and questions about who did the cooking in their households. The same was almost never true in stories about male leaders.

“That, to me, presented a double standard for women,” Vu said. “They have to be really good at home and at work to be considered successful. Men didn’t see it that way. They only had to be successful in the public sector.”

News coverage also relied much more heavily on men than women for sources. Even though women make up 47 percent of the nation’s workforce, news coverage cited men as sources more than 80 percent of the time. Men dominated in sources in every field, even those traditionally associated with women, including women’s rights, stories about elderly, and children and family issues.

To understand why the disparities were so prevalent in media coverage, researchers surveyed more than 400 journalists and conducted in-depth interviews with an additional 16. Respondents largely said they depend on men as sources more frequently because they felt that was what the audience wanted. When asked how they knew what the audience wanted, some cited data such as page views, but many others said they attempted to put themselves in the position of their readers. Journalists nearly unanimously stated that women should be equal in society and that the country needs to work on gender equality, but they also reported the same perceptions of men and women as leaders as voters had. They viewed men as more capable, confident, decisive, powerful and authoritative, and these traits have been stereotypically seen as needed to be a good leader. Women were viewed as more understanding, thoughtful, delicate, compassionate and sympathetic, but with poorer leadership qualities.

The findings show journalists are influenced by the same perceptions and biases as readers.

“In the interviews we found it wasn’t just the audience that held those beliefs,” Vu said. “It was cultural and general ways of thinking that influenced their work, and they didn’t even realize it. It’s so engrained in culture they didn’t detect gender biases in their professional practices.”

To combat those biases from permeating media coverage, the researchers made a series of recommendations. Among them was training of journalists. Many countries around the world include “women and the news” courses as part of journalistic training. That is not common in Vietnam, but teaching students how to equally represent genders could result in long-term change and improvements, the authors said. For working journalists, making a network of consultants available to work with news organizations in addressing unequal coverage and sharing ways to improve could be effective, as would incorporating guidelines on gender stereotypes into professional guidebooks and codes of conduct. Children’s rights organizations have successfully consulted with media on similar issues in the past, Vu said.

Vu and colleagues presented their findings to Oxfam this month and will continue to produce scholarly publications on the topics. Oxfam will use the findings to produce a media campaign and policy advocacy for gender-equal media representation.

“Because we believe media can influence public perceptions of gender bias, we think working directly with media can help change perceptions over time and these types of efforts can be more effective, in terms of cost, than holding seminars and trainings throughout various parts of the country,” Vu said. “Gender equality fits with the values of Vietnam, especially those in the middle class, as they transition to a middle-income country.”