Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, shown here with her husband Prince Harry, raised her voice against stereotyping long before she was in the public eye. Photo AFP / Jeremy Selwyn

I remember watching a speech by Meghan Markle, more often known for her marriage with Prince Harry, at UN Women’s International Women’s Day summit in 2015 on how her journey as a women’s rights advocate started when she was only 11 years old.

She said she was disturbed by a commercial for a dishwashing liquid, widely shown on television with the tagline “Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.” When she shared this in her school, two boys in her class said, “Yeah, that’s where women belong, in the kitchen.”

While growing up in Japan, honestly, I never even thought about gender equality or noticed the gender stereotyping in media. I thought this was how women’s roles were defined and divided in society. Gradually, however, I started to feel uncomfortable with women being confined in traditional expectations at home, at work and on media. 

Even today, while the whole world is rallying for gender equality, it is quite often that I cringe at television shows or commercials that leave me angry and disappointed – just like it disturbed Markle almost 25 years ago.    

Media have a woman problem

It is 2021 and yet films, advertisements, television shows still show women in traditional roles as victims and martyrs. While women are often portrayed as submissive, voiceless and powerless – either as an object of desire or shown in the kitchen, serving at the dining table, or clapping on the sidelines – and rarely in boardrooms leading huge corporations, or fighting wars on the borders, as they do in reality. 

Apart from being widely gender-stereotyped, women are far less likely than men to be seen in the media around the world. As subjects of stories, women only appear in a quarter of television, radio, and print news. According to a 2015 report, women made up a mere 19% of experts featured in news stories.  

A report by the United Nations titled “Gender Inequality in Indian Media” found that less than 4% of leadership positions in the country’s media companies were occupied by women, while the figure was 26.3% for digital portals.

As renowned columnist Liza Mundy once wrote in The New York Times, “Male opinion columnists outnumber women by more than two to one at The Wall Street Journal, more than three to one at The Washington Post, and five to one at The New York Times. Men also represent authority and expertise in more subtle ways.

“On the front page of The New York Times, the study noted, men were quoted three times more often than women. When women were writing the stories, the number of women quoted went up.”

Are we part of the problem?

Here I would like to turn to a more important question. Have we ever noticed this huge gap that Mundy pointed out – the absence or dormant presence of women in media? Has it ever bothered us, or has it become an acceptance? If we have never noticed this huge disparity across media and across countries, then maybe we are also part of the problem. 

I know things are changing slowly – very slowly – but they are changing. Actresses are now rejecting roles that objectify them and refusing to endorse such things as weight-loss programs. 

Recent times have seen films that presented women as strong females who can raise their voices against injustice, who can rebel in their own ways and make their own political statements. But such films are still exceptional. Even in the last few years, we have been audience to several popular films and television shows that portray the hero saving the “damsel in distress” and largely stereotypical. 

Staying inside the box?

Be it transitions at corporates or empowering conversations with leading women in the sports and entertainment industries, society will change only as fast as we do as individuals. And any change always starts with discomfort – and maybe a few uncomfortable questions that bother us: Are we responsible as media and as audiences for the low representation of women? Are we as producers and journalists reinforcing the stereotypical portrayal of gender in media? 

While the world is changing so much and so fast, staying inside the box is not an option, especially with women taking over boardrooms, parliaments, and human-rights movements across the world. The media should promote the stories and voices of these phenomenal women who are making history that can inspire millions like themselves across the world. 

Choose to challenge

Eleven-year-old Meghan Markle chose to challenge the gender stereotyping promoted through a soap commercial. She wrote a letter to the US first lady at that time, Hillary Clinton, and even to the soap manufacturer that aired the commercial. To her surprise, not only did she received a letter from Hillary Clinton, but a month later, the soap manufacturer took down the commercial and changed the tagline to “People all over America.” 

Even at the age of 11, Markle was able to make an impact, since she chose to challenge gender stereotyping and continued fighting for a gender-equal world. 

So, whenever we have a choice, let us “choose to challenge” – challenge people, social norms, and media that promote gender biases. Choose to challenge for equal rights for every woman, everywhere. 

Shoko Noda

Shoko Noda is the UN Development Program India resident representative.