In recent years, issues like the #MeToo movement, the male-female wage gap and women’s role in the workplace have become central for many mainstream publications. In addition, many brands started to focus their marketing efforts on addressing gender diversity, as consumers’ preferences have moved more palpably towards empowerment and inclusiveness.

There has been steady growth in the number of media stories about female CEOs and companies welcoming women in the C-suite. But the media attention around gender equality not only raises awareness – the media is actually a significant force for societal change.

A recent study by Weber Shandwick concluded that although no single factor can ensure gender equality at senior executive levels, the media stands out as having the potential to help push the door open for women. Weber Shandwick’s survey found that two-thirds of global executives surveyed have recognized that gender equality in the C-suite is a growing public issue, with the majority of respondents (71% of men, 60% of women) attribute this increase to media coverage. This was taken as a sign that when the media speaks, corporate executives listen.

Moreover, millennials – the generation that increasingly makes up the demographic that the media serves – expect gender balance. And as journalists increasingly praise some companies and shame others, for including or excluding women on their senior teams, companies will have to act smartly on gender equality to preserve their reputations.

Focus on leadership and Covid

We analysed 1093 articles around gender equality, published in top-tier English-language outlets between October 2020 – March 2021. We found that the pandemic has given a new impetus to the discussion, as already familiar problems such as women’s representation in the workforce and the gender pay gap have been closely investigated through the prism of Covid.

The recent debate has been dominated by two topics: women in business/leadership and Covid’s overall impact:

Many articles made the case that gender diversity is not only ethically right but a smart management decision because companies with more women at the helm actually tend to perform better. While numerous studies show having more women in management positions is good for the bottom line, new research found they performed better during the pandemic as well, “possibly indicating that women tend to perform better in a crisis.”

Some journalists noted that the pandemic has presented us with a real-time experiment in leadership: for example, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hit the headlines for the comprehensive actions she undertook to prevent the spread of the virus in her country. She was also praised for showing her own vulnerability and compassion – something rarely seen in male leaders. Others pointed out that from the beginning of the pandemic, women leaders have been more risk-conscious and prioritised human lives above other concerns.

There were also many articles about how women’s representation in the workforce still hasn’t improved: for example, a number of reports noted that women’s labour force participation hit a 33-year low, proving the pandemic, remote work and lay-offs have disproportionately impacted women workers.

The Covid’s impact topic focused on how pandemic has deepened inequality at large, and has disproportionately affected girls and women. The reasons for this included that women have lost their jobs and economic opportunities to a much larger extend than men, while also constituting the vast majority of the frontline health and social workers.

But at the same time, women have largely been left out of decision making on essential Covid efforts: according to a study in British Medical Journal, only 3.5% of national task forces have gender parity, and the 2021 Global Health 50/50 report revealed that the vast majority of programmatic activities to prevent and address the health impacts of Covid largely ignores the role of gender.

The Global progress in gender equality topic followed recent trends in developments in gender-related policy and regulations around the world. For example, many outlets reported that on International Women’s Day, US President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order establishing the White House Gender Policy Council, which aims to advance the equality of opportunity while combating systematic biases and discrimination against women.

The Gender pay gap topic contained some positive news: for example, research from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) revealed that employers have narrowed the wage gap between women and men by almost one fifth (19%) on average. However, in 25 years, the pay gap has shrunk by just a few cents: PayScale’s 2020 Gender Pay Gap Report found that women make only $0.81 for every dollar a man makes – a decade ago in 2011, it was 77 cents.

The Women in politics topic also reported about some progress: in 2020, the global proportion of women in parliaments reached a record 25.5%, an increase of 0.6 points compared with 2019, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) latest Women in Parliament report, which stated that it will take another 50 years before gender parity is achieved in parliaments worldwide.

International organisations at the forefront

We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around gender equality.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Because of the journalists’ tendency to cite studies and statistics, international bodies providing updates on gender equality, like the World Economic Forum, World Bank and UN Women, had the highest media conversation impact score in the conversation. Other influential organisations with thought leadership on the topic included Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works to accelerate women into leadership, Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency and the Fawcett Society, a UK charity that campaigns for women’s rights.

The World Economic Forum was referenced mainly because of its 2021 Global Gender Gap report, which concluded that the pandemic has reversed global progress in achieving equality between men and women and the fallout could be long-lasting. It found that the global gender parity gap is currently 68% closed, which is down half a percentage point from the year before, and continuing at this rate, it will take 133.4 years to achieve global parity between men and women.

Similarly, the World Bank was mentioned because of its 2021 report, entitled “Women, Business and the Law,” which stated that countries are inching toward greater gender equality, but women around the world continue to face laws and regulations that restrict their economic opportunity, with the pandemic creating new challenges to their health, safety, and economic security.

UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, was cited for saying that the latest measures taken by the United Arab Emirates have helped women get more rights and better protection.

Companies gained share of voice by pointing out the problem

Communicating diversity and inclusion has become one of the top PR priorities, as the notion of corporate reputation has come to imply putting purpose before profit and delivering value to all stakeholders, instead of merely focusing on the interests of shareholders.

Companies are scrutinised daily for their approaches towards the social issues of the day and this creates risk as well as opportunity. Many organisations have hired chief diversity officers and dedicated significant resources to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Our analysis showed that corporates featured in the gender debate mainly for providing thought leadership similar to the aforementioned international organisations and NGOs. In other words, they secured their share of voice by pointing out the problem rather than by offering their solutions. In this regard, there were not many media reports of the specific progress companies are making in tackling gender equality.

For example, consultancies like McKinsey and KPMG had high media conversation impact scores as they focused on the business case for inclusion and diversity. A McKinsey research suggested there is an increasing connection between women in leadership roles and business outperformance, but championing gender difference is something many organisations still grapple with when building diversity within senior management ranks.

Meanwhile, KPMG’s Female Leaders Outlook 2020, which was published in Saudi Arabia for the first time, found that a significant majority of global female leaders (79%) and female leaders in Saudi Arabia (81%) stated that their company’s digital transformation projects have been accelerated during the Covid-19 crisis.

Tech companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, IBM and Microsoft were also influential in the debate, as the technology sector as a whole seeks to position itself as a more female-friendly and inclusive industry.

For instance, ahead of the International Women’s Day 2021, LinkedIn released the Opportunity Index 2021 report, which found that as many as 85% of working women have missed out on work offers, promotion or raise due to their gender.

Facebook‘s Global State of Small Business Report said female-led small and medium businesses (SMBs) were more likely than male-led SMBs to report closures taking into account factors like size of business, sector and geography. “The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone — but not everyone equally. Women are more likely to have extensive caring responsibilities, lose their jobs or have pay cuts and feel overwhelmed, stressed or anxious,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook.

The recent IBM Institute for Business Value study “Women, leadership, and missed opportunities” revealed that despite increased awareness around gender inclusivity gender equality is still not a top priority for 70% of global businesses. On the other hand, Microsoft and a group of foundation partners have formed the Male Champions of Change Microsoft Partner Group to help accelerate the technology sector’s push for gender equality.

Banking was another industry with a palpable presence in the debate – for example, Goldman Sachs received a flurry of media attention after announcing at Davos that it will carry out IPOs only for companies that have at least one woman or non-white board member.

According to some commentators, this pledge would make Goldman one of the first investment banks to mandate diversity among clients. The bank has had a long-standing reputation as the ultimate ‘old boys’ club’, reinforced by articles such as New York Magazine’s ‘The Head of Goldman Sachs Will Always Be Bald’.

As Wall Street has been trying to address its gender problem for more than a decade, there were other positive developments: for example, HSBC has come in equal seventh among 100 FTSE companies for female representation on its board (46%). Meanwhile, Jane Fraser’s rise to CEO of Citigroup – the first woman to lead a big Wall Street bank – hit many headlines.

Check out our CEO Tracker for more CEO comms insights.

The only consumer brand in the top 20 most impactful companies was Coca-Cola, which announced that it has surpassed its global goal of empowering 5 million women across its value chain by enabling more than 6 million women through 318 programs across 100 countries.

Perhaps the most negatively covered in our sample was Disney, which was sued by ten women for what they have called “rampant gender pay discrimination”, claiming that Disney discriminates against female workers by paying them less than their male counterparts – accusations which the company called “ill-informed and unfounded.”

How can media analytics help with gender-inclusive positioning

As Covid gave new momentum to the gender debate and the media will continue to scrutinise companies for their policies, it will become increasingly important to position yourself at the forefront of the debate. Apart from the obvious measures like actually implementing gender-inclusive programmes, there are a few things media analytics can help with:

  • Identify the most relevant topics. The gender debate is multi-faceted and it would be overly ambitious to try to encompass all of its aspects. Comms professionals should rather focus on the issues most pertinent to their organisation – just like consultancies concentrated on the business case for diversity or Facebook on diversity in small businesses (the bulk of Facebook’s advertising revenue comes from myriad of small- to medium-sized businesses). A good example of how a consumer brand did it was Gillette‘s focus on toxic masculinity – read our analysis here. Another key aspect here is white space mapping – identifying the topics which are not yet saturated and where companies could position as thought leaders.

  • Learn how to increase the visibility of female execs in the media. It’s not enough to say that you support diversity – it’s important who within your organisation says it. A media analysis could find how female executives manage to gain a large share of voice and what strategies would result in a high volume of earned media coverage. For example, media profiles of women in the C-suite are becoming more and more popular among top-tier publications – take a look at the BBC’s profile of Whitney Wolfe Herd, the tech billionaire who is putting women first.

  • Make diversity and inclusion a key part of your environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) messaging. In PR terms, diversity is often put under the umbrella of “purpose”. Our recent research shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders (not just financial professionals) in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics such as diversity are very popular among millennials.

Learn more about how Commetric’s Media Analytics can supercharge your communications strategy with the essential insights necessary to boost your reputation.