Media gender equality regimes

By Claudia Padovani on February 24, 2018

Photo: Amevi Wisdom on Unslpash

Developing gender-empowering media policies and normative frameworks for the media has been flagged since the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women (1995) as one of the steps to be taken in order to meet the goals of Section J of the Beijing Platform for Action (PfA): those of promoting equal access to the media and decision-making (J1), and eliminating gender stereotypes in media content (J2).

On the occasion of CSW47, in 2003, participants called for policies and adequate regulatory frameworks to address gender-based discrimination, while highlighting that the lack of, or insufficient attention to, gender perspectives in media and communication policies also needed to be addressed. 

More recently, the centrality of normative components – such as codes, policies, strategies and governing arrangements - in combating persisting inequalities, has been reaffirmed in debates and initiatives at the international level, including in the contexts of the Global Alliance for Media and Gender and its Research and Policy Committee; the Un Women Global Compact “Step it up for gender equality in the media”; the Untwin University Network for Gender Media and ICT as well as by a number of advocacy and scholarly contributions to the debate (UNESCO/IAMCR 2014).

At the same time, attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 5 – Gender Equality – but more broadly the comprehensive set of SDGs, requires serious consideration of the normative frameworks to be put in place, at all levels, from the local to the global.

Evidence shows that, as of today, past recommendations have been widely disregarded by governments, international and regional organizations, and media companies as well. Therefore, scrutiny of the interplay between gender, politics, and media policies remains crucial a) to develop necessary knowledge on the contradictions that prevent gender equality from becoming a reality in the media and ICT sector and b) to elaborate sound policy proposals that are needed to support and foster actions aimed at redressing persisting inequalities.

The GAMAG aims at contributing to a better articulation of how to think, approach and foster gender-aware media and ICT policies and normative frameworks at organizational, national and international level. We do so in due consideration of the multiple gaps and shortcomings that emerge from investigations in the field, and of the need to promote a policy-focused multi-stakeholder engagement in the definition of theoretically-sound, evidence-based and effective normative frameworks for ‘Media Gender Equality Regimes’ at all levels.

Area J of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) clearly stated that governments and other actors are called upon to promote “an active policy of mainstreaming of a gender perspective in (media) policies and programs”(par. 237) and should support research which reviews existing media policies (par. 239.b). The document also encouraged “the participation of women in the development of professional guidelines and codes of conduct or other appropriate self-regulatory mechanisms to promote a balanced and non stereotypical portrayals of women by the media” (par. 241.d) while calling for media organizations themselves to “elaborate and strengthen self-regulatory mechanisms and codes of conduct” to comply with the objectives in Section J (par. 236 and 244.a/b).

At its 47th meeting, in March 2003, the Commission on the Status of Women, highlighted the risk that gender “differences (in representation, access and use of media and information technologies) have important implications for policy development at national, regional and international levels (CSW47 2003_Final, par. 2).

Moreover, being held while preparations for the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) were in progress, the Commission made an explicit call to integrate gender perspectives in every facet of the Summit and of information societies’ future normative developments. To this end, the Commission indicated, as a very first Recommendation for action, that of ensuring “women’s early and full participation in the development and implementation of national policies, legislation, … strategies and regulatory and technical instruments in the field of information and communication technologies (ICT) and media and communications” while creating adequate “monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure implementation of gender-sensitive policies and regulations as well as to analyze the gender impact of such policies” (par. 4a).

It also encouraged “regulatory bodies … to promote full participation of women in the ownership, control and management in the ICT and media sectors (par. 4b). Furthermore, the Commission recommended the constitution of partnerships, to develop “self-regulatory gender-sensitive guidelines for media coverage and representation, for public and community media to work in support of gender equality” with a specific reference to need to provide financial resources and other support measures to this end (per. 4e), including resources to support research to “review existing media and ICT policies” (par. 4f).

It should be noted that, in spite of such an explicit recognition of the relevance of regulatory arrangements to promote and sustain gender equality in the media and ICTs, the recommendations made in the above mentioned documents have been widely disregarded and policy-related aspects of media gender unequal relations have been amongst the least considered, not to say ignored, by policy actors, and by media and ICT industries, at different levels. 

Evidence from research
It should also be acknowledged that, while there have been decades of research looking at the broader gender and media agenda, media and gender-related policies and regulatory mechanisms have not been widely investigated: few focused analyses have been conducted, which have not yet translated into a consistent strand of reflection.

Few researchers have engaged with supranational fora – such as the Unesco and the WSIS, the Internet Governance Forum and others – exposing the low level of awareness and attention for gender inequalities in media and digital contexts, and related international debates, and providing insights on how such gaps could be addressed (Gallagher, 2008, 2011; Jensen, 2008, 2010; Droussu and Jensen 2005; McLaghlin and Pickard 2005). 

Sparse interventions have discussed policy-related aspects of media gender inequalities with a regional focus – from North America (Beale, 2002; Shade, 2014) to Europe (Sarikakis and Nguyen, 2009; Ostling and Nenadich, 2017) and Latin America (Chaher, 2014) – and only recently attempts have been made to collect perspectives on gendered media policies from across the world regions (Padovani 2015; Padovani and Pavan 2017). Most research lamented very limited commitment towards the Beijing PfA policy recommendations.

Moreover, looking at regional-level policy interventions, particularly in the European Union, it has been highlighted that policy-making related to the media and audio-visual industries has been characterized over time by a lack of attention to gender equality issues and a seeming lack of commitment in pursuing gender-sensitive outcomes (EIGE 2013; Ross and Padovani 2017); while where regulatory mechanisms have been put in place in a consistent manner, as in the Southern Africa region, this has been the result of sustained advocacy commitment (GenderLinks 2017).

The general situation is highly problematic as far as the actual inclusion of gender inequality concerns in national media policies. No comprehensive international research has been conducted to provide evidence on the existence and/or implementation of gender and media relevant policies at the national level. What emerges from the Preliminary findings of a recent UNESCO Global Survey on Gender and Media (2016) is that only 35% of world governments have mainstreamed media and gender issues by integrating media and gender in national cultural policies and programs; in 37% of cases gender strategies do not include references to media; and a similar percentage characterize media regulation for regulatory bodies that relate to gender equality in content, staffing or ownership.

Contributions to Ross and Padovani (2017) shed a similar light on the European context, also characterized by minor efforts to elaborate gender-aware national media policies. Small sign of growing awareness emerge from Latin America, particularly Argentina (Chaher 2014; Justo 2017) and Mexico (Vega Montiel, 2014); both cases, again, where the role of civil society organization and professional female associations have been crucial to have gender concerns included in media policy framing, arranging for monitoring and redress mechanisms. And yet sustainability of such mechanisms over time is identified as a major issue.

Recently, two major international projects have included a systematic focus on media organizations’ internal policies and support mechanisms in their framework of investigation (IWMF, 2011; EIGE, 2013). What these projects show is that in spite of recommendations made since the mid ‘90s, gender equality policies, codes of conduct and support mechanisms in media organizations are not a widespread practice.

The IWMF report showed that slightly more than half of the (500) companies surveyed have an established company-wide policy on gender equity. These ranged from 16% in Eastern European to 69% in both Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe (IWMF 2011, 34). While according to the EIGE report only one quarter of selected (99) media organizations across 28 EU countries (26 %) have a Gender Equality Policy or code of conduct, and 21 % have equality of opportunities or diversity policies (EIGE 2013, 37). Nor there has been any significant improvement regarding the availability of gender equality policies in recent years (Ostling and Nenadich 2017).

Moreover, wide variations in the adoption of gender-related policies can be found both between and within the different regions: according to IWMF only around a fourth of the 38 companies surveyed in Middle East and North Africa had adopted a company policy on gender equity; while, as indicated above, more than two-thirds of the surveyed media companies are reported having a specific policy in Southern Africa. And yet, the “relationship of national laws to workplace policies on gender equality was unclear in many cases” (IWMF 2012, 36).

These studies have also highlighted examples of good practices, such as the adoption of gender equality policies and support mechanisms in public service television in countries like Sweden, the UK, Spain and Austria and South Africa; or measures to enforce gender-equality in the media adopted by independent regulatory authorities in countries like France and Morocco. But even when internal policies are in place, this does not seem to be a sufficient condition to produce better gender-responsive media outputs in terms of content, access, participation.

According to IWMF in some cases policies, codes and mechanisms adopted by media organizations have the potential to make a difference, but no clear correlation amongst different situations could be found. Differently, according to the EIGE Report, when European media companies have adopted policies, codes and mechanisms (which is more likely for public organizations), a higher probability to have a higher percentage of women in decision-making positions could be found (EIGE 2013: 46). Scholars and advocates have also reflected on the nexus between gender and policy developments in relation to digital technologies, the Internet and its governance. 

Critical feminist analyses of regional developments pertaining to “digital agendas” have been recently collected by Padovani and Shade (2016). Contributions on digital strategies adopted in Canada, India, the MENA region, Europe and Australia all showed the marginality of gender concerns in digital policy development; the material and discursive shifts in social and digital policy that contribute to the adoption of narrow/neoliberal frames for gender equality; and the need to unpack the meta-narrative of technology, gender, and development that characterizes policy narratives from the national to the regional level (Gurumurty 2016; see also APC 2012).

Gurumurthy and Chami (2010, 2014) have argued for the need to move beyond the assumption that digital technologies are empowering “per se”, stressing the fact that socio-technical practices reproduce gender power differences. Hence, beside looking at institutional policy making, they invite to critically engage with gender-unequal norms that are privileged in structuring the Internet and ICTs, their design and architecture. 

While looking at internet governance as a space of policy discourse – from the Internet Governance Forum to the technical community – Avri Doria (2015) has highlighted the rhetorical nature of gender-relevant statements in formal documents and provisions, the limited degree of women participation and the marginality of substantive women’s issues discussed. Worth mentioning, in this context, are the contributions made by feminist advocates and organizations, like the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), that has a longstanding commitment in fostering gender equality in digital policies, including by articulating feminist principles for the Internet (APC 2015).

Not only is the Internet a gendered space that does not provide equal access to women and girls, but also “the policies necessary to make ICT accessible to girls and women everywhere have not been dealt with – in Internet governance – as a serious manner” (Doria 2015, p. 6) 

Overall, the lack of awareness of how important comprehensive normative frameworks and policy provisions would be in addressing media and ICTs gender inequalities, has been widely identified as a major constraint to the implementation of gender mainstreaming standards (Ross and Padovani 2017). In this context, scrutiny of the interplay between gender, media and ICTs policies remains crucial to develop necessary knowledge on the contradictions that prevent gender equality from becoming a reality in this sector; while structural and cultural barriers, from the local to the supranational level, need to be fully appreciated in their interaction with communication and ICT policy developments.

More research – focused, transnational, and comparative – is needed to gain a comprehensive understanding of how normative frameworks relate to gender equality in practice, in different geo-cultural and socio-economic contexts; to integrate reflections conducted on traditional and on digital media; to collect, make visible and share existing good practices; and to promote policy awareness as central to gender equality in media and ICTs future developments, in order to elaborate, implement and monitor policy measures and normative developments.

Media gender equality regimes
To inform and support policy developments and related research, we argue that a comprehensive understanding of media gender inequalities is needed, also through the adoption of adequate analytical frameworks. Though efforts have recently been made to elaborate indicators (Unesco, 2012) and fostering good practices (CoE, 2013) with a multi-dimensional perspective, what still seems to be missing is a comprehensive framework that would support research, monitoring and policy practice.

We hereby propose to address the multiplicity of issues under discussion elaborating and adopting such a multidimensional approach: that of “media gender equality regimes” (iMaGERs) understood as “interrelated practices, meanings and processes, aimed at transforming systematic gender disparities that characterize the media sector” (Padovani and Pavan, 2017): practices, meanings and processes that are, or rather should be grounded in agreed upon principles and norms, and carried out through systems of empowering regulatory mechanisms (Padovani, forthcoming).

Working through a “media gender equality regimes” approach offers a twofold opportunity. On the one side gender inequalities in the media take many different forms and persist, across the world’s regions, in areas of representation and recognition, access and inclusion, working conditions and decision-making, education and power relations in general; and yet rarely are these issues discussed in their intersection and their interrelated nature (Dierf-Pierre 2011). The iMaGERs as an analytic approach invites focusing not on single, specific forms of inequality, but on the interplay and intersection of multiple forms of privilege and disadvantage, that come to constitute the media and ICTs as gendered orders (Connell 2009); and to render the complexities of interlocking practices and processes that result in continuing inequalities (Acker, 1989).

As highlighted by Walby (2004, 22) when gender relations are understood not as a series of disperse and separate phenomena, but as part of a regime, or a system, “then it is possible to see how such a wide range of inequalities may be addressed”. And this calls for normative frameworks and regulatory arrangements capable of addressing systems of interconnected unequal relations.

On the other side, the iMaGERs can be adopted as a normative proposal, highlighting the principled and normative component of media and ICTs sectors’ operations. Thinking of regimes as “implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area” (Krasner 1982) highlights the need for normative and regulatory arrangements that should support coordination of interested stakeholders’ behaviour in addressing gender inequalities in the media and ICTs. Media gender equality regimes (should) result from a plurality of practices and processes grounded in, and bound together by principles and beliefs that – in response to the Beijing PfA and CSW47 calls for gender-aware policy developments – should also translate into norms, regulatory provisions and formal policies.

In this perspective, principles of inclusion, respect, dignity, equal opportunities, equal access to means of expression, knowledge and resources; as well as explicit reference to women’s communication rights should be embedded in articulated sets of regulatory measures to be ideated, designed, developed, and implemented. Also in this case measures are not to be conceived and adopted as separate and disconnected, but rather as inter-connected components of normative frameworks for media and ICTs gender equality.

In consideration of the multi-actor, multi-level and multi-dimensional character of gender-empowering media policies, these measures include:

  • media internal policies, as well as self-regulatory measures, codes of conduct and mechanisms;
  • national media and ICTs policies and strategies, that should include gender concerns;
  • national strategies for gender equality, that should acknowledge the centrality of the media and digital technologies;
  • actions to be adopted and initiatives promoted by independent media regulatory authorities;
  • consideration for the ways in which civic organizations and professional associations contribute to frame and articulate normative standards and framework for media and ICTs operation and content;
  • inclusion of gender equality concerns and goals in the design of digital technologies, software, hardware and infrastructures;
  • existing supranational – transnational, regional and international – normative frameworks addressing gender concerns in relation to media and ICTs.

Policies and normative frameworks are crucial
The “media gender equality regime” approach could thus orientate and support the development and implementation of normative frameworks, and the adoption of policy measures, which are crucial to expose and address inequalities in a number of ways. In fact, as it has been highlighted:

  • the construction of formal, publicly promoted and integrated equality strategies and/or policy frameworks, constitutes the clearest evidence of an organization’s commitment to gender equality (Ross and Padovani, 2018);
  • formally adopted policies and mechanisms are core to define principles and goals, reflect normative orientations while providing a framework to assess progress and change (Gallagher 2011, 2014, 2017);
  • public policies and regulations can contribute to implementing profound cultural transformation that is needed to achieve a needed redistribution of symbolic resources, particularly those related to the maintenance of gender inequalities (Chaher 2014)
  • by establishing sanctioning elements, such measures can also contribute to guarantee sustainability over time of positive changes towards gender equality (Gallagher 2011, 2017) when it is clear that progress in this area is not a linear process and step-backs are always a possibility (GMMP 2015; Ross & Padovani 2017);
  • national and international normative frameworks that articulate media gender equality for both traditional and digital media, are key to support media operations, while contributing to mainstreaming gender in communication governing arrangements (Padovani 2014; Padovani and Pavan 2017)
  • a better understanding of the policy dimension in media operations may lead to producing evidence-based, sound and consistent policy recommendations for gender equality in and through the media;
  • policy-oriented investigations may foster a productive dialogue between gender and media scholars and communication governance analyses and practices (Sarikakis & Shade 2008; Padovani 2014), the outcome of which may inform future normative and policy developments.

Recalling Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goal – “Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large” – we highlight the centrality of media gender equality regimes to the attainment of such goal; as well as its relevance to all other SDGs. 

We argue it is not enough to mainstream gender issues. It is also necessary to recognize the intersection of various forms of inequality and oppression, and to address the main power structures that contribute to maintain and reproduce gender and other inequalities, within, across and beyond the media and ICTs. Such structures certainly include interconnected norms, values, institutions, and regimes that contribute to reproducing gender inequalities, as well as other forms of exclusion and discrimination in contemporary knowledge societies.

In this light, gender-empowering normative frameworks for media and ICTs operations could do more than just promote gender equality in the specific media and ICTs sectors. By making the media and ICTs more gender equal, they would also impact on all other sectors in society, since the media are not just reflection of societal trends but also represent, anticipate and embody desired societal transformations. Furthermore, they may provide a model for the development of comprehensive and intersectional normative frameworks in and across other sectors where gender equality is to be realized. Finally, they would mainstream gender across policy arrangements related to every single SDG, while contributing in reconfiguring power structures that perpetuate societal unequal developments.

Building on the above mentioned studies, reports and policy documents, consistently with the media gender equality regime approach, and with the aim of responding to on-going calls to foster gender equality in and through the media by developing and implementing adequate normative frameworks, the following Recommendations are made:

  • At the level of media and ICT industries, steps should be taken to address the lack of gender awareness on the part of both women and men working in such environment - particularly those occupying senior and managerial positions - and to address the lack of formal provisions which define media and ICT industries’ normative standards in relation to gender inequality issues.
  • We call for the adoption, at the level of media organizations, of formal and integrated equality strategies and policy frameworks, including support mechanisms for monitoring, evaluation and action. These measures should be a requirement for media and ICTs operation. This is important in structural terms, so that an equality ethos is firmly embedded in the organization; it also provides a clear signal to all employees that equality issues are taken seriously and that behavioural change needs to follow policy change, thus fostering sustainability of gender-equal changes over time. 
  • At the same time, national and international normative frameworks that restate and articulate media gender equality as a priority for both traditional and digital media, and for knowledge societies in general, should be elaborated to engage media operators and all interested stakeholder in efforts to realize gender equality.
  • We call for specific references to the role and relevance of media and communications to be made within general gender equality national strategies; as well as for a specific commitment to gender equality in national media policies and digital strategies, and in international communication governance provisions. These developments may result from collaborations between different institutional actors: including UN agencies, national Governments, Parliamentary Committees and Communication Independent Authorities, with the participation of professional and civic organizations, gender expert and researchers, and of the media themselves.
  • We also invite a better understanding of the gendered policy dimension of the media sector and its governance through the elaboration of regular monitoring and research activities. Adequate resources should be made available to research, in order to produce evidence-based, sound and consistent policy recommendations for gender equality in and through the media, traditional and digital, from the local level to the national and international;
  • In particular we call for a commitment towards a global research plan, focused on governance structures and governing arrangements to better understand to what extent and under what conditions public policy and regulatory interventions may produce/facilitate/support the necessary change towards gender equality in and through the media and ICTs.
  • We also call for efforts to be made, transnationally, to develop awareness and knowledge, across IT industries and educational institutions, of gender concerns in relation to ICTs design, and to elaborate normative frameworks that would support and inform gender-aware technological development.
  • Finally, we call for the arrangement of interdisciplinary and inter-sectorial multi-stakeholder exchanges of information, knowledge and good practices.2 These should be organized on a regular basis and institutionally supported, to create the conditions for an on-going dialogue between gender and media scholars and professionals and other actors involved in the governance of communications, so as to develop the capacity to address the challenges deriving from future media and ICTs developments also through adequate policy interventions, with a forward looking gender mainstreaming perspective. 

1. This position paper has been elaborated by Claudia Padovani, Director of the Center for Gender Studies @ SPGI Department, University of Padova (Italy); Member of IAMCR Task Force for Gamag and of the Gamag Research and Policy Committee; University of Padova Focal point to the Unitwin University Network on Gender Media and ICT.

2. A collection of good practices in relation to media policies and normative frameworks for gender equality in the media is currently being curated as part of an EU-funded project: Advancing Gender Equality in Media Industries (AGEMI), co-funded by the “Rights, Equality and Citizenship/Justice” programme of the European Union and coordinated by Prof. Karen Ross (University of Newcastle, UK) and Prof. Claudia Padovani (University of Padova, Italy) and will be online in late 2018. For further information, contact:

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February 24, 2018
Categories:  Media Development

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