Czech media foster gender stereotypes, says equal rights campaigner

Monika McGarrell Klimentová, photo: archive of Women’s Congress

How are women portrayed by the Czech media? How does the media approach to male and female politicians differ? And why do journalists ask women about children and household matters? These are just some of the questions raised by the second Women’s Congress that will take place in Prague this Saturday. The event brings together around a thousand women, as well as men, of diverse nationalities, professions, ages and political backgrounds, who will be debating this year’s main theme: Women and Media.

Monika McGarrell Klimentová,  photo: archive of Women’s Congress
Just a few days ahead of the Women’s Congress, I spoke to one of its organizers, Monika McGarrell Klimentová:

“The Women’s Congress was founded as an initiative by organisations, institutions, academia, public and private sector and individuals throughout these sectors.

“Then we established an NGO for funding purposes. But it mainly serves as an unofficial space for women to network, to share experience and knowledge. We also wanted to give women as a social group a voice where they can formulate their ideas about the future.

“Our intention was to organise a congress every year, but because it’s very difficult to fundraise money for something which deals with equality, especially something called ‘Women’s Congress’, we thought we would like to manage to organise this event at least once per two years.”

This year’s main theme is women and media. Why did you select this theme?

“We strongly believe that the way media portray women has got a significant impact on how women are seen by the society, what their status is in the society.

“Pictures of women in the media usually reinforce the gender stereotypes that in the end limit women’s free choices for a career, for a family, for life choices in general.

“Already during the organising the first congress we found out that it’s very difficult to communicate the topic of equality or women’s rights to the media. We think that once we are not in Afghanistan we don’t really have to deal with these issues. We were even labelled as witches.

“And actually, even now, when we talk about the congress and we want to promote it in the media, it’s difficult to sell it to the same media more than once a week, because they say: gender once a week is way too much.”

Who is the conference intended for? Is it just for media professionals or is it also accessible to the public?

We strongly believe that the way media portray women has got a significant impact on how women are seen by the society and what their status is in the society.

“We want to address all women, regardless their age, profession, origin, social background, status, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Although they are very different and they’ve got different life choices, they do share the same experience, which is unfortunately linked to discrimination in the society.

“But basically we want to address anybody who considers gender equality an important topic. And those individuals can be found among experts, in the public sector, among politicians, businessmen and businesswomen, so basically, men and women alike.”

Can you name some of the guests who will be attending this years’ event?

“We managed to build a very strong partnership with several journalists. We are very happy about it because organising such an event without them would be much more difficult and we probably wouldn’t be able to choose the right topics.

“I would like to name Pavlína Kvapilová, Jana Cíglerová, Lenka Tréglová, because they were very big help to us, as well as Daniela Drtinová, who helped us with the viral spot, and many other people from all parts of media world.”

What about men, will they have a voice at the conference? Because media, at least in the Czech Republic, is mostly headed by men.

“Yes, they do have a voice. We had a big discussion at the beginning, even with the women I have just named, about the fact that the first plenary session of the congress won’t be attended by men.

“It’s one 90-minute panel. The rest of the day men will be present at the panels, because they are in the decision making process. But this panel is to provide space for women, because they lack space, not enough space is given to them in the media. It was difficult to communicate that this is not a fight against men, but it’s our support of women. But we managed.

“We would like the men from the decision making to sit in the first row and if they want to say something, we do want to give them the space, we want to promote dialogue, so this is not intended against them. So they are definitely a very important part of the congress.”

How are women portrayed by the Czech media? How do the Czech media stand in comparison to other European countries?

“There are not many studies that would focus on the general portrayal of women. We can only draw conclusions from studies that were looking at what are the topics women report about or how often women are a subject of certain reports. That, unfortunately, says that media do reinforce the gender stereotypes.

“Women are usually reporting about local political issues, they rarely report on international affairs and business. They usually report about lifestyle, buildings, design, health and science.

“Also, if you look at the TV presenters, they are disproportionately good-looking and usually under 35. My husband is English and he is shocked when watching Czech TV. He always asks if it’s a joke, because it’s very hard to believe that it’s meant seriously.

“I think we can also say that Czechs are very tolerant to sexism in advertisement, which is quite unique in Europe. I have been told that it looks like western countries used to look in the 1980s. I think it’s very backwards and embarrassing.”

Would you say that public media should take the responsibility for the way women are portrayed?

“Definitely, that’s what we aim at the congress and it mainly concerns the public media, because they are paid from our taxes. They definitely should take the responsibility about what the discourse about women and men’s status in the society is.

“We want the business to be responsible but I think it’s even more important for the media to be responsible, because the way they portray women, immigrants and other issues does influence how people think.”

Do the Czech media sufficiently reflect topics and issues that predominantly concern women, and are there, in fact, any women’s topics?

You don’t ask men if they have kids and how they juggle between work and family. You do ask women all the time about that.

“This was also a subject of heated discussions among the organizers of the congress, because at the beginning we had a kind of postulate that the media don’t reflect women’s issues.

“But when we were talking to the journalists, we realised that it was a stereotype talking from us. There shouldn’t really be women’s and men’s topics. If we consider family, social and health issues as women’s topics, then we are far away from equality in the society.

“So we don’t think that there are mainly women and mainly men topics and that politics and business should be men’s topics.”

One of the talks presented at the conference is entitled: Do journalists outside the Czech Republic also ask women politicians how they prepare potato salad? What exactly does it refer to?

“It refers to an interview with Miroslava Němcová, former speaker of the lower house. The interview was about her political career but she was still asked about her recipe for Christmas potato salad slipped in.

“You wouldn’t ask men about these things. You don’t ask men if they have kids and how they juggle between work and family. You do ask women all the time about that.

“I don’t think it only happens in the Czech Republic, I think in general having kids and a political career is still seen as rare. Maybe the situation in the Czech Republic is worse, maybe not, but it is still an issue.”

There is also for instance a public debate on public safety, how is this linked to the media?

“This topic is linked to both the theme of this congress as well as of the next one we would like to do. The way the public space is designed, how safe it is, reflects the fact that public spaces have been for a very long time designed mainly by men, although they are planning the cities for everybody. That’s why the next theme of the conference should be the public space.”

There will also be an accompanying cultural programme. Can you tell me more about the programme?

“At the beginning we were actually facing difficulties to organise the festival in the public space, because of doing something ‘gendered’, as we were told. So at first we were not allowed to do the festival at Prague’s Náměstí Míru, but in the end we changed the local council’s opinion.

Illustrative photo: Joe Zlomek / freeimages
“So we will have a cultural programme which will bring bands fronted by women from all over the world, Latin America, the Balkan states and many others. We’ll be able to taste some local cuisines of those countries, and that goes hand in hand with the fact that immigration is being one of the topics broadly discussed in the Czech media.

“We would like to express our stand that Women’s Congress should give a space to articulate experience and priorities of marginalised groups as well, which immigrants of course are.

“And then as well very important part of the programme outside will be a blogger’s café, which will be a mentoring for women who are interested in blogging.

“There will be women writers as well, talking about what it is like to write, how to start, what to do. So I think it’s very interesting to come and see. There will be activities for kids as well and I hope the weather will be better than the forecast says. “