Political shows and programmes in Ghanaian media are male-dominated. Turn on your radio or TV set any morning, what greets you are the usual faces and voices of men. Come back to it in the afternoon and it will be the same. Evening shows are no different either. Primetime programs and the hottest political shows are preserves of male hosts and panelists. This has remained pervasive in the continent and Ghana is no exception.
Unfortunately, the phenomenon has reflected in other platforms of public discourse organized by both public and private institutions. When Ghana recorded its first coronavirus cases on March 12, 2020, conversations around preventive and containment measures started amongst government officials, health experts and private groups and individuals. Media programmes moved from more physical and enclosed facilities to online spaces due to imposed restrictions on social gatherings, which was subsequently eased in June 2020.
It has been heartbreaking watching Ghanaian media and event organizers repeatedly exclude women from critical conversations at a time that every citizen is grappling with the pandemic. In fact, evidence points to a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women. Violence against women and children have been on the rise since the pandemic hit. The informal economy, with majority women has been the most hit with an upsurge in unpaid care work.
Yet, not many platforms have been created or availed for women to share their experiences and shape inclusive public policy discourse on the pandemic. Whether the conversations center around the science or the impact of the pandemic on citizens or response mechanisms, it has continued to be male-dominated. Consequently, women’s voices are drowned by the media’s preference for male panelists.
On May 28 2020, World Menstrual Hygiene Day was commemorated under the theme, "#NoMoreLimits – Empowering Women and Girls Through Good Menstrual Hygiene”. In Ghana, one of the commemorative events was a manel discussion on menstruation. Some members of the manel exhibited gross misunderstanding about menstrual hygiene. Indeed, some utterances were identified as potential triggers for stigmatization around menstrual health. It was condemnable, and Ghanaian feminists rightfully called it out.
The concept of manels was coined five years ago by Finnish feminist researcher, Dr. Saara Särmä after she observed discussions solely led by men on various platforms. Dr. Särmä asserts that male only panels are a symptom of a much bigger problem - the erasure of women in public discourse and conversations globally. Manels are pervasive in public discourse and conversations in Ghanaian media with the majority of political discussions on radio and television erasing and denying women’s participation in the public sphere. This puts women in a disadvantaged position and further widens the gender gap in the country.
Globally, it’s reported that, women make up a mere 19% of experts featured in news stories and 37% of media practitioners such as reporters and broadcasters. This is alarming and needs urgent attention from policy makers and implementers globally to ensure a balanced conversation in the media. A similar study conducted by the Media Foundation for West Africa in 2014 revealed that, in June 2014, out of 2,172 people who featured on radio programmes, 83% were men. This is alarming and unacceptable!
A 2020 report by STAR-Ghana Foundation on perspectives on the Status of the Ghanaian Woman affirms that high inequality and gender discrimination is reflected in many critical spheres of life. The media easily mirrors this. As technology advances and people continuously seek information on both social and traditional media, representation in public discourse must be inclusive. This makes the media’s role crucial in conversations around nuanced gender representations and women’s participation in development. Visual and audio media communicate better to the citizenry and more women must be seen and heard on television and radio respectively.
Sadly, the under-representation of women and the continuous gender gap in dialogue platforms are perpetuated by the sexist and patriarchal nature of the media space - male dominance entrenched in the social systems of Ghana; the dismissal of women’s expertise based on stereotypical gender roles; the “boys club” culture factors that could discourage women from participating in such conversations.
It is crucial that the media makes efforts to change the norms and practices by challenging the status quo to increase the representation of competent and vibrant women in the media space. By women representation, we call for the inclusion of all women, feminists and activists who are passionate about gender equality and who do not conform to the patriarchal expectations of society to share their perspectives on these programmes. These would contribute to creating gender equality in the media space.
Manels are a Threat to Ghana’s Human Resource Capital
Ghana is a democratic state with rich cultural and social diversity. About half of Ghana’s population is female. Systemic cultural and social constructions have exposed men and women to experiences that are unique to their gender. Every voice and experience is valid - it is only right that each gender has the opportunity to be heard.
Female experts abound in all fields of development – science and medicine, humanities, construction, academia, etc. It is therefore untrue when the media and event organizers claim “the women are not there”. Constitutional, moral and scientific arguments can be advanced against manels in important national discourse. And the ‘common sense’ arguments too – why have half when the entire can be drawn? Why have a few men around the table when it could be a rich mix of men and women with unique experiences and a rounded world view? It is indeed a waste of Ghana’s rich human resource capital. Institutions that construct manels do not value their audiences, and definitely do not belong in 2020.
Ghanaian Feminists Taking on Manels
After years of advocating for balanced discourse mainly through diplomatic means, Ghanaian feminists changed their strategies and tactics. Cyber activism has been useful in calling out manels, media houses and event organizers through naming and shaming. Manel programme flyers were bandied around on social media and critiqued, forcing organizers to make public statements to ‘redeem their irredeemable images????’.
A script-flip approach was employed through humor advocacy. Feminists circulated event materials with all female panels on subject matters in which females have no range. This gained traction on social media, again forcing notable manel-guilty media houses to respond publicly.
Another approach is in building allyship with men, especially regular panelists. The recognition that men can be allies in stopping the practice means that feminists must work with them to recognize and reject being part of manels. Male allies are an important element in the fight for gender equality and equal representation. Allyship goes beyond presenting a man who has the biological make of a male, it involves deliberately engaging men who have detoxed themselves of the toxic norms and cultures that breed inequality and are ready to dialogue for equal representation.
It is worth noting that the advocacy and activism of feminists have not totally gone unheeded. Some media houses and institutions have demonstrated renewed consciousness to include women in their programming. So far, the efforts are paltry – so much more needs to be done in Ghana and Africa.
One key recommendation is the need to create conducive and supportive environments for women to participate actively and express their views without fear and stigma. This makes the National Media Commission (NMC), Ghana’s regulatory body responsible for professional journalism crucial, as well as the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA). These and other relevant institutions must work towards promoting female representation and gender-balanced conversations in the media space. The Women’s Wing of the GJA should be enabled to perform internal gender and social inclusion audit roles.
Civil Society Organizations such as the Alliance for Women in Media Africa (AWMA) and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) must work to dismantle the patriarchal culture of major political television and radio shows and the Ghanaian media space in general. The National Media Commission should set standards for inclusive media content. The development and implementation of equality and inclusion policies should be key requirements for media houses.
The reality is that the media is a powerful tool. What is normalized and preached on television or radio easily reaches every level of society. Therefore, individuals, interest groups and policy makers must be concerned about the pervasiveness of manels on the screen and airwaves. Younger women would benefit hugely from being exposed to female role models through inclusive panelists.
It is a never-ending battle against manels, but it is one that must be fought with consistency and with vigor.