“This is appalling. It is impossible to explain away these results”, said Marko Junkkari, the Editor of the business, economics and politics news desk of Helsingin Sanomat newspaper after the results of our research project ‘Expertise in the Media’ were revealed in November.
In our study we had scrutinised the use of academic and other experts in Finnish news journalism. Indeed, the results were disconcerting and disappointing. According to our study, less than 30 per cent of the experts interviewed in Finnish news journalism were women.
Finns are used to seeing themselves as forerunners in gender equality. This is why the research results showing how little foothold women have in public expertise may be difficult to accept.
Whether one looks back in history or evaluates the current situation in Finnish society, there are good grounds for viewing Finland as a country that supports gender equality.
Finnish women were the first in the world to fully exercise the right both to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections. Today, the amount of women in the national parliament exceeds 40 per cent, and since early 2000 the cabinet portfolios have been shared equally between male and female politicians. Also, when it comes to family life, Finland has been named the best country in the world to be a mother.
In working life, the employment rate of Finnish women is almost as high as men. In terms of full time employment, Finnish women score highest in Europe. Women in Finland are also highly educated. With regards to the level of university degrees, working age women have already bypassed men.
So why is it that women’s expertise appears less valued in public debate and in news journalism than that of men?
One could easily suggest that this is because there are fewer female experts available or that such women are less inclined to appear in the media, but the answer is more complicated.
Firstly, male and female employees are fairly evenly matched among university researchers and lecturers in Finland. In some universities, women even constitute a majority. It is true, there are less female than male professors in Finnish academia, but the media are not confined to interviewing only professors. Individuals interviewed include junior academics and other experts who hold a variety of positions in the society.
In fact, men dominate also the field of public expertise outside academia: more than 70 per cent of all interviewed and named experts in the news were male. Furthermore, even among professors, male scholars are interviewed more frequently than their female colleagues.
Secondly, our survey of social scientists in the three largest Finnish universities proved that women scholars were just as willing as their male counterparts to appear as experts in the media. They just were contacted far less often by media organisations.
When editorial staff are making decisions on whom to interview, gender is not given much thought. In the often hectic reality of the media houses, journalists tend to rely on experts that have been interviewed before and are known to be knowledgeable, quick-witted and familiar to journalistic practices. And, when gender is not actively considered, journalists are likely to turn to male experts.
The results of our study may be disappointing, but its reception has brought more than just a glimmer of hope. Several columnists, journalists and academics, both men and women, have shared their views on the topic and offered suggestions on how to improve the situation.
Some of the actions have been purely practical yet brilliant. The day after the results were published the Head of Communications in the Bank of Finland, Jenni Hellström, sent out a press release listing all women experts working for her organisation.
Most notably, Marko Junkkari, of Helsingin Sanomat, and his colleague Mauri Liukkonen, from Savon Sanomat, have publicly announced that their newspapers will revise their practises in order to narrow down the groundless gender gap revealed in the study.
Junkkari’s and Liukkonen’s responses were more than welcome. If things were to change, it is the readers who will benefit the most.
A narrow range of interviewed experts may be convenient to journalists but it has several negative consequences. If only a very limited group of academic and other experts get their voices heard, the perspectives provided by the media are likely to remain restricted. Finding the best experts and achieving a multi-voiced public debate is likely to benefit us all. And more importantly, by giving women academics a platform to become visible, to be seen and heard, media will contribute to a more equal and accurate picture of Finnish society.
Mari K. Niemi
Senior Researcher, Centre for Parliamentary Studies, University of Turku
Visiting Scholar, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
The Project in a Nutshell
‘Expertise in the Media’ project was based on three separate research materials. The first set of data was gathered in 2013 and included 1,131 news stories (from Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, national broadcasting corporation YLE and news agency STT) in which individuals were given expert positions. The second set of research material included 11 semi-structured interviews with experienced journalists and managing editors (from Helsingin Sanomat, Iltalehti and Ilta-Sanomat newspapers, YLE, STT and commercial broadcaster MTV3). Seven of the interviewees were women, five were men. These interviews were conducted in the spring of 2014. The third set of research data included a survey that was sent out in spring 2014 to 1,125 researchers working in the fields of social sciences in the University of Helsinki, University of Tampere and University of Turku. In total, there were 293 respondents, of which 146 were women and 147 men.
The study was carried out by Senior Researcher, Dr. Ville Pitkänen, and Senior Researcher, Dr. Mari K. Niemi, and it was funded by Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.by