IT came as a bit of a surprise when I received my latest assignment from my editors: I was to cover the launch of the 3rd edition of the Gender and Development Glossary of the international newswire Inter Press Service (IPS). The book, I was told, is supposed to be a tool to help reporters navigate the “sometimes tricky terrain of gender, media, and development.”
I’m one of only two male members of the PCIJ’s eight-person editorial staff; assignments like this usually go to one of the women in the office. My editors joked that it was a penalty for me for writing for FHM — I had previously contributed pieces about sports and pop music for the website of the men’s magazine, which had been accused by feminist groups of promoting the objectification of women.
Well, at least I think my editors were kidding. Nevertheless, I was excited. After all, I had never covered an event on gender awareness before. So last August 10, the launch date, I showed up at the venue…where there was another surprise waiting for me: in a room full of journalists, academics, and advocates, I was the only male member of the audience. The only other male person in the room was University of the Philippines College of Social Sciences and Philosophy dean Michael L. Tan, who was part of the panel. Perhaps it wasn’t just at the PCIJ where male reporters are rarely sent to cover events on gender-related issues (in large part because it has always been a female-dominated organization).
A guide for a tricky terrain
IPS Asia-Pacific Director Johanna Son opened the event by talking about the glossary, which was developed through “the lens of the media,” as a guide for journalists and writers to key terms in gender and development, including not just their meanings, but also their nuances. She said that while media, whether mainstream or alternative, generally accept that news content and language must be gender-sensitive, many people are still not too aware of how loaded some terms are. She noted that few stylebooks contain gender- or women-related items that would help reporters navigate the “sometimes tricky terrain of gender, media, and development.”
IPS Asia Pacific Director Johanna Son
“Media are both part of the problem and part of the solution,” said Son. She acknowledged that some newsrooms are hard-headed, and recounted how she has encountered cases where terms such as “sex” and “feminism” are considered bad words.
But the pendulum swings the other way, too, with media going overboard on efforts to be perceived as gender-sensitive. “It’s the ‘chair conundrum,'” said Son, describing the confusion over whether “chairman,” “chairwoman,” “chairperson,” or simply, “chair,” is the most gender-sensitive term. “NGO language” and flag-waving terms don’t work, she said, and neither do boring headlines that contain jargon that would put off the reader.
Gender-sensitivity, she said, is an editorial value that must be pursued, just like accuracy, balance, and having a diversity of voices. “A gender-sensitive story is a better-told story,” said Son, saying that gender-awareness would allow a reporter to find subtle, unacknowledged angles, due to how different genders often have different perspectives and encounter different circumstances, leading to a fresh take. There is a need, she said, to “translate” gender-sensitivity into daily “newspeak” so that it becomes a habit, and striving for gender-balanced stories becomes second nature to reporters.
Words and attitudes
Tan cited the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which tells us that words shape the way we think. For members of the media, this means that the choice of words carries an influence that goes beyond merely stringing together letters that form sentences. He took the discussion further and said that perhaps these efforts should also target students in schools and universities, so gender-awareness would be developed in young people, which is important not just for future journalists and advocates, but for the whole society.
Professor Michael L. Tan
While Filipino is a gender-neutral language, Tan said that there are still dangerous pitfalls with the way we use the language, with the words we use reinforcing negative, insensitive attitudes towards gender. He cites the use of “gamit,” a colloquial term for having sex; translated literally, it means “to use,” reinforcing the attitude that women are objects to be used for sex. Tan advocates the use of the term “pakikipagtalik,” a more neutral word, but his research among medical personnel reveals that many women do not understand the latter term, and prefer to use the word “gamit” anyway.
Another example he cited is how Filipino terms for having sex with a women often have violent, forceful connotations: “binibira,” “tinitira,” “binabanatan.” Because language shapes the way we think, there is a danger that the nature of these words would affect one’s attitudes toward the opposite sex.
The lone student in a room full of teachers
I found whole discussion interesting, and I was inspired to speak up when the floor became open for questions. I shared that as a male reporter, especially one working for an organization with excellent veteran female journalists, it was a rare occasion that I was tasked to cover an event related to gender issues. I noted how sad it was that I was the only male journalist in attendance, and pointed out this was probably the case in other organizations as well. While I would not have a problem with doing stories about women and gender issues – in fact I would love to get a chance to do one – I probably would not have an opportunity to do so, because of how stories like these are usually assigned. Because of this, I said, a male reporter like me would take a bit of time to become comfortable doing these kinds of stories, simply for the lack of “practice.”
The audience full of women
The experts in the room pointed out that one does not have to write a story about women and gender to write gender-sensitive stories. By looking at stories through a “gender lens” – incorporating a gender-balanced perspective when developing and reporting stories – one would be able to write gender-sensitive reports even if the story is not necessarily directly about women and gender.
It was a great point, and in hindsight, I kind of felt stupid that I hadn’t looked at it that way in the first place. Although I must say that, as a man, I was no stranger to feeling stupid around women.
Still, while I got the point — and it is something that I would consciously try and apply to my work — I felt like the lone student in a room full of teachers. I couldn’t possibly be the only male journalist in the country who missed the point about the gender lens. And yet I was the only one in that room that afternoon. It could be mere coincidence, but it could also be an indication of how pitifully low the interest and awareness of males generally are when it comes to gender-related issues. Changing minds and changing attitudes require monumental effort, and one would think that more help from 50 percent of the population would be required to achieve that.