Gender in Economic News: How We Can Help Close the Gap(s)

09/01/2023     12 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

Sophie Knowles

A researcher and senior lecturer at Middlesex University (UK), Sophie Knowles specializes in economic journalism. Amid several projects on how economics, news and gender intersect, she discusses why the economy is one of the less inclusive beats and what journalists and media organizations can actively do about it.

Having someone reach out to her to discuss gender in economic and business news was somewhat of a surprise to Sophie Knowles. “It’s usually me approaching other people,” she explained. “So the fact that it is the other way around is great.”

A long-time lecturer in journalism and researcher, Sophie has been “fascinated” for years by the lack of women’s inclusion in economy-related news. Not only has she studied the data, but she has also interviewed many journalists, editors, economists, and news consumers about it.

In 2020, Sophie Knowles published a book dissecting the news coverage leading up to and following the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the role major media outlets played in it in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. More recently, she has been focusing in her research on the links between economics and the media with a gender-sensitive approach. Among the multitude of projects she is working on, she has another book on the way. It examines the mediation of the economy through a feminist lens.

The topic at hand is so rich and Sophie so passionate about her work that our conversation ended up being quite lengthy. So with our guest’s permission, we edited the interview for more clarity and brevity. 

How did you end up taking an interest in this nexus between gender, the media and the economy?

Sophie Knowles — I think that you’ve used the right word: “nexus.” There’s a lack of connected dots, and the whole area around women in the economy in the news is so incredibly under-researched… This is bizarre considering the gender data gap is so stark, so clear. 

My background is in research in financial, business and economic journalism. It goes back to the financial crisis in 2008. Suddenly, there was a flurry of researchers who were all attracted to this area because people suddenly became interested in economics. As I got into this research area, I have come to realize that few of the researchers were asking questions around gender. We have a body of research that discusses gender in the newsroom, some of it is feminist in nature, but when you start to look, there is very little research on how gender affects economic news, and how gendered the mediation of the economy is. If we look at the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis as case studies, they highlight that women’s position in the economy is worse than ever. 

We do have a couple of studies that have been really instrumental. There’s Luba Kassova’s study — it came out very recently — that indicates the tiny number of women that are quoted for information within economic news stories. So we can point to studies like that, which tell us what’s happening with news content, and that is fantastic. But there are very few that have gone into depth about what’s happening structurally, institutionally, organizationally — you know, all the different factors that feed into this and explain this phenomenon. 

“If you look into the newsroom, my survey indicates that fewer women are covering this beat. And then, when they do speak with sources for information, who’s available within that sphere of power and influence? Men in leadership roles.”

In an analysis for the Global Media Monitoring Project, Sarah Macharia reaches the conclusion that “severe under-representation of women is a structural feature of business and economic journalism worldwide.” It’s “systemic,” she writes. Has this been what you have noticed through your research as well?

Economic power and the way the economy is analyzed and defined is very much dictated by men. The UK Royal Economic Society has shown there are few women economists compared to men and fewer still in leadership roles. And so, of course, their issues are at the front of the agenda. If you look into the newsroom, my survey indicates that fewer women are covering this beat. And then, when they do speak with sources for information, who’s available within that sphere of power and influence? Men in leadership roles. And it all feeds into a really gigantic communication asymmetry, which is completely detrimental to women. 

So this is very much a structural issue. But we have a couple of issues, I think, that aren’t addressed by such studies. Whilst they’re really excellent at providing data, they don’t dig into the cultural reasons why this is still a problem, what can actually happen within newsrooms, and more than that, what can happen to change the discourse. Speaking with economists and feminist economists, I have found out only recently – I didn’t know this is the case, and I’ve been doing this work for years — that within the economics profession, they actually view engagement with news media as quite lowly. It’s not regarded as highly as academic endeavors.

Furthermore, if you speak with women journalists that cover this beat, they’re very reluctant to discuss gender. They won’t describe their experiences by gender, and there’s a lot of data to prove that even if you put women in some of the highest leadership roles, in editor roles, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will improve news content. So we actually need to see cultural changes within newsrooms.

And then, the public — you look at OECD surveys, and they will tell you that in every single country in the world, women, young women, and young women of color in particular, always have the lowest financial literacy scores. If you look at media consumption patterns, it’s usually women and those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, disadvantaged, who are less likely to be able to afford more specialist financial information. And a lot of my research with journalists has also shown that there’s a bit of a training gap and a quality gap between mainstream news and specialist financial news.

So it’s a very complex dynamic, and it does not benefit women at all. If anything, we’re unconsciously left out of the picture. It’s almost an unconscious bias, and it’s one that women perpetuate, too. That’s what’s hard.

You mentioned “financial literacy.” In your work, you talk a lot about that. Can you give us a definition?

When you hear the term “financial literacy,” it might sound like I’m talking about something quite complicated. The OECD measures this — they have complicated ways to do so, but we’re simply talking about how people manage their money, the jargon that they understand or they don’t understand.

Depending on the country, loosely speaking, we’re talking about around 50% of the population who doesn’t understand terms like GDP or inflation which are around everywhere at the moment. Quite often, I see that journalists use those terms without any caveats, without breaking them down, and it’s almost like subverting Journalism 101. But I do think if journalists knew just how low financial and economic literacy was, particularly amongst the disadvantaged, they might start to break things down a little bit more and make them more relevant for the wider public. I think that would be really important for building a more inclusive discussion around the economy.

“It would be great to see all journalists feeling comfortable asking questions around the economy, while covering health as a beat for instance, or even fashion, or whatever it might be. Just breaking down the silos working in and connecting with other beats to find where there are overlaps.”

In an ideal world we would reset everything and start anew, but that’s obviously not possible. Is explaining jargon one of the actual, concrete actions that journalists can start doing? What else can they do?

There are some really basic fundamental things I think journalists could do. Explaining jargon would be an easy one. Considering how they present data — I did work with women from low-income and ethnic minority backgrounds in North London, and they expressed more trust and understanding when they saw simple graphs.

Seeking different sources for information, trying to foreground women’s voices and women’s issues as much as possible because the heteronormative, male-dominated economic space will always default to a particular way of talking about the economy. Bear in mind that women are more reluctant to accept interviews from journalists, and I’m not just speaking generally. There are lots of studies that prove this point. Women tend to feel more conscious, particularly on camera. They feel like imposters. So they might require a bit more coaxing and coaching. But we need for journalists to not just go to the same sources all the time because it’s perpetuating a feedback loop of information, which is replicating the structural inequalities that are already there.

Thinking about economics differently… Thinking about it as something much broader and wider than just the financial markets. You know, the economy is something that touches our lives almost on a daily basis. So for women — they often do manage household budgets, but they often have bigger aspirations than that, too. We need to start talking about the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling seriously. We need to talk about managing families and workloads seriously.

I understand it’s really difficult to do that when you’re faced with declining resources, with less time to produce stories and be proactive. But it’s about moving outside of your silo and stepping away from groupthink. It’s about going back to journalism 101, just… asking “why?” Why would this be relevant for the public? I think that economics can be discussed in such abstract terms, and that we tend to forget that it is for everybody. Everybody does have a stake in it. 

You said earlier that economists and feminist economists aren’t actually that willing to speak to the media. How are journalists supposed to make it work?

It’s a good question. Economics has its own ways of working as a discipline. They’re quite reluctant to speak to the media. You’ve got certain economists who do it, big names like Joseph Stiglitz in the US. But we need to encourage other economists that require a bit of enticement. Women economists who don’t feel comfortable might think “people are going to judge me,” “I might receive a lot more hatred online, on social media in particular.” So I think it’s a case of selling, not just the story, but the reason for doing this. You might need to be really positive and highlight the reasons why it’d be so great to have their perspective. You should maybe include them more in feature pieces, perhaps longer pieces. That gives them a little bit more time to reflect. Or if it is going to be “hey, can you come online or can you be on TV tomorrow?” give them as much context and preparation material as you can.

You mentioned before a need for cultural changes within the newsroom. Have you noticed any encouraging sign of progress at all recently?

A line of different women have now taken up the most prominent posts at some of the most well-renowned global financial titles. We have Zanny Beddoes, head of The Economist. We’ve got Roula Khalaf, head of the FT. And more recently, we’ve got Emma Tucker taking over the editor role at the Wall Street Journal. So these are all really, really positive trends for women. One of the journalists I’ve spoken to that works at the FT has said that this appointment has been fantastic. They’re already doing journalism a bit differently. There’s room for the inclusion of more women’s voices, which is a brilliant trend to hear about. But we don’t know for sure whether this is going to be a pattern that sticks, continues and improves even more, or not. We don’t know if it’s going to trickle down and mean that more women are covering this beat. That’s yet to be shown.

I conducted interviews with women business and financial editors, and they were very reluctant to talk about sexism, about the gender pay gap. But here I am speaking just for the UK. I know there are other women in the US, who I also interviewed, who were very, very open about it. Saying: “#MeToo changed everything for us,” “#MeToo meant that we could stand up for ourselves,” “This boys’ club culture that used to exist in business rooms is no longer okay.” So they were far more open, but that could be again something quite cultural.

In recent years, we’ve seen initiatives such as the BBC’s 50:50 work on women’s representation in the news. 

The BBC 50:50 gender program is really, really important. We need to see more women. If young girls are to believe that they could make it in that field, they need to be represented. 

Do you know of other projects, but with a focus on economic news?

They don’t exist. And I wonder why. Why aren’t more people interested in economic news, especially given the latest series of economic crises? There’s always so much more interest in subjects like politics, with little regard for its impact on economics and vice versa. We have this whole body of research that looks at how women politicians are represented by the news. Not just the numbers, but the terms. How there’s usually an emphasis on what they’re wearing and personal attributes. But we haven’t got anything like that for women economists for instance.

You take a beat like the economy which is reserved for men and defined by men. It’s quite complex, it’s esoteric, it takes understanding. You don’t have a lot of scholars, particularly communication scholars, writing about this because you need to consider economic theory and a lot of people do shy away from that. And I discussed earlier that the public have quite low financial economic literacy… you could put a lot of journalists in the same bracket. And it’s not their fault. But it makes it difficult to hold economic power to account. You don’t know the right questions, you don’t feel that you’ve got conviction in what you’re saying. I think that comes down to the news organization and the in-house training that it provides.

What are some actions that you believe can be effective in newsrooms?

Despite some of these trends that we mentioned earlier, it’s going to take more than 260 years to close the gender gap. Particularly when it comes to economic participation, that does require a certain level of training and understanding. It would be great to see all journalists feeling comfortable asking questions around the economy, while covering health as a beat for instance, or even fashion, or whatever it might be. Just breaking down the silos, working in and connecting with other beats to find where there are overlaps. I’m not saying that you’d necessarily need to be able to decipher really complex economic equations, I don’t even think that’s necessarily relevant. Just understanding the economy and how it works on a really fundamental, basic level to begin with would be helpful.

But who would have the legitimacy to train journalists in such a specific and complicated area?

That’s a good question. You’d need… 

Economists who would be willing to share their knowledge?

Yes, although finding the right economist would be difficult. Particularly after the financial crisis. Neoclassical economics education was criticized a lot because its economic modeling hadn’t predicted the crisis. It hadn’t factored the variables that it should have. It just wasn’t relevant to people’s everyday lives. So you’d have to find the right economist that sees the value in improving not just press but public discourse. They’d also need to understand how the news media work.

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