Almost invisible: Female politicians in Austrian election media coverage

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Politics in Austria is still a male business. Even though women occupy 39 percent of the seats in Austria’s Nationalrat since the 2019 elections – the highest share in history – female politicians are still underrepresented. Party leaders and ministers have predominantly been men, and the country’s first female Prime Minister, Brigitte Bierlein, did not take office after an election, but was appointed by the federal president after the infamous Ibiza scandal in 2019.

Also in media coverage, female politicians are less visible than their male colleagues are. This is the main result of our study recently published in Journalism. Using quantitative content analysis, we analyzed print media coverage from six newspapers during the 2008, 2013 and 2017 election campaigns.

The underrepresentation of women in campaign coverage is undoubtedly part of a consistent power struggle (Celis and Lovenduski, 2018). Therefore, national parliaments in Western democracies as well as the European Parliament have adopted voluntary or mandatory quota systems (Celis and Lovenduski, 2018; Council of Europe, 2017). As a result, the general visibility of female politicians has increased, albeit rather slowly. In the European Parliament, 29.6 percent of members were women in 1999. By 2008, this number had risen to 31.2 percent and just under a decade later, in 2017, 37.3 percent of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) were women (European Commission, 2009; European Parliament, 2017). However, the question arises as to what extent the media still disadvantages female politicians compared to male politicians in election campaigns. The media can break, but also foster existing stereotypes such as the marginalization and trivialization of female politicians (Wolf, 2008).

Our results show that women occupy only a small percentage of newspaper coverage; that this depends greatly on a woman’s role as a politician; and that they are still associated with typical “feminine issues”.

First, female politicians make the news significantly less often than their male colleagues do. Table 1 shows that of all media articles included in our study, only 4.8% carried a woman as the main actor, i.e. as the person delivering the main message of the news item. In the 2017 election, this share was even lower than in the years before.

Table 1: Coverage of main actors in Austrian campaign coverage in 2008, 2013, and 2017

Second, we found that it primarily depends on the woman’s role in politics whether she appears in the news: 53.9% of the female main actors were cabinet members, another 30.5% were their parties’ respective top candidates. The remaining 15% were “regular” female politicians, half of them of the Green Party, as this party had adopted a gender quota long before any other party.

Third, female politicians are to this date associated with issues that have a stereotypically feminine connotation, or so-called “soft issues”. Issues like the military, agriculture, or disaster relief were only associated with men, while issues like culture, the environment, or education were associated with women. Overall, we saw, again, that female politicians were only featured with “hard issues” when it came with their role – such as being the minister for the interior as Johanna Mikl-Leitner was in 2013.

Politicians per se do receive media coverage. However, the struggle for visibility is more crucial for women than for men. It is the responsibility of parties and political institutions on the one hand to ensure that women are in positions as powerful as men are; on the other hand, journalists and the media need to be more aware of whom they cover and why they cover them. A follow-up study that is currently in progress will show whether the extraordinary circumstances of the 2019 elections – with an expert government run by a woman, and a preceding scandal triggered by men – have produced a different picture of gender representation in election media coverage.

By Lore Hayek and Uta Russmann in July 2020

Lore Hayek is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

Uta Russmann is a professor at the Department of Communication at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences of WKW, Vienna, Austria.

References

Celis K. and Lovenduski J. (2018) Power struggles: Gender equality in political representation. European Journal of Politics and Gender 1(1–2): 149–166.

Council of Europe (2017) Media, elections and gender – Study on media coverage of elections with a specific focus on gender quality. Prepared by the committee of experts on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership (MSI-MED). Available at: https://edoc.coe.int/en/media/7612-media-elections-and-gender-study-on-media-coverage-of-elections-with-aspecific-focus-on-gender-quality.html

European Commission (2009) Women in European Politics – Time for Action. Luxembourg:Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

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