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When it comes to gender equality in media, we need a wider lens.

This blog was originally posted in New America.

Feminism has made a lot of recent headlines, but the question remains: is the media really on board with gender equality? After taking a closer look, you wouldn’t think so. Women are still secondary players. Girls and women make up less than 24 percent of the people seen, heard, or read about in the world news, and only 10 percent of news stories have a woman as their focus.

Even when we do see women and girls in the media — especially in film and television — they, for the most part, don’t reflect or represent reality. An example: women make up about 40 percent of the global workforce, but only 23 percent of employed characters in popular film. Female characters are also stereotyped as the primary caregivers, and remain virtually absent from on-screen leadership roles in science, sports, and religion. We know that over-sexualized, under-empowered female characters impact women and girls’ self-image and self-esteem, as well as the way men and societies view women. And, we know that this must change.

But in addition to the female board members, scientists, and athletes missing from our screens, something else has been missing from the conversation about gender equality in media — and it became very clear at the UNESCO-hosted International Development Cooperation Meeting on Gender and Media earlier this month. While various organizations represented there are leading the charge to flag, expand, and transform how women are being shown in the media, comparatively few have focused on how the mass media portrays men — and, more importantly, how those portrayals are critically important in shaping norms around gender equality.

Although men are over-represented in media compared to women, we still see them being portrayed in fairly narrow ways: the muscle-bound tough guy, the action hero, the soldier, the bro, the “cool”/impossibly perfect dad, the sexual predator, and more along those lines.

These restrictive stereotypes of men encourage unbalanced and unhealthy relationships, and they police definitions of manhood.

They can also lead to the promotion and normalization of harmful behaviors, including violence, which about one in three women worldwide will experience in her lifetime from a male partner.

Gender equality in media will remain outside our grasp if men are not partners in the process — both on and off screen. Changing stereotypical portrayals of what it means to be a man is crucial to making this happen. Across genders, we need to see a 50–50 representation: men making up 50 percent of the caregivers, women making up 50 percent of the leaders.

We know that the status quo isn’t getting the job done. Media portrayals impact how we perceive men and women alike, and for that reason are a significant place to enact change. But before we take a closer look at what’s happening on screen, we need to examine what’s happening in our homes.

The International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), which has been implemented in 12 countries to date (with over a dozen forthcoming), is the largest comprehensive survey on men’s attitudes and behaviors when it comes to gender equality — and how this relates to violence, health, caregiving, and more.

What it has found is powerful: what young boys and girls see their fathers do is crucially important to how they will develop.

When men see their fathers using violence against their mothers as children, they are 2.5 times more likely to use violence against a female partner as adults. We know that girls who see or experience violence as children are also more likely to find themselves in adult relationships where their partners use violence.

We also see the effects of positive role modeling. Children who see their fathers participating in daily care work are more likely to be supportive of gender equality: girls may feel empowered to pursue less traditional jobs, and boys are more likely to do housework themselves as men.

These powerful lessons of how children react to the way their own fathers behave can — and should — be adapted and modeled on screen to effect change. Whether at home or in the media, how children see men matters.

Although there have been increasing efforts — like IMAGES — to figure out where, and how, men fit into the gender equality equation, more research is needed — as is more action. Hundreds of organizations, including those present at International Development Cooperation meeting, know that having more women in media — both on-screen and behind the scenes — can move the needle on gender equality. But we need to do more to look at gender equality through a wider lens than just women and girls; We need to broaden the conversation to transform the way we portray men and boys, and the way they see themselves.

In short, let’s look at everyone: boys and girls, men and women — those who are diverse across races, genders and sexual identities, and abilities. Let’s look at how they are represented in the media, and what that means for the “real world.”

To get there, we need to train media professionals to create and market programming that provides pro-gender-equality and non-violent messaging, and that portrays both women and men in non-stereotypical roles. We need images of strong women in leadership roles who are valued for more than their sexuality, just as we need images of compassionate men in caregiving roles who reject all forms of violence. And we need to find a way to carry this messaging through to YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, gaming, and other online and nontraditional platforms.

On the demand side, we also need to invest in media literacy programs that teach all young people to be critical consumers of stereotyped perspectives and representations of gender in media, including in film and television, online, in pornography, and on gaming and other platforms that they are exposed to early and often.

Corporations and media makers also need to recognize publicly the value in making these changes. There is money to be made, of course, from sensationalizing bad behavior, but the tide is beginning to shift. Some brands, like Dove Men+Care, are embracing men as caregivers in their advertising. MenCare, a global fatherhood campaign that uses images of fathers showing affection and care, has expanded to over 35 countries in only four years. The Mask you Live In, a 2014 film depicting what it’s like to grow up as a boy in the US given pressures to conform and be “tough,” has already won 14 awards. We need to build on these and other examples of the a growing demand to broaden how men are portrayed.

Media — along with other forms of art and imagery — allow us to present the world as we’d like to see it.

Media has the power to normalize men’s violence, but it also has the power to normalize men’s caregiving and expand the picture of what it means to be a man, which has enormous implications for the future of gender equality.

None of this is to say that the work of gender equality for women on screen is done. We still desperately need women represented in a diversity of roles in front of and behind the camera. But it’s not an either-or scenario, and it’s time to pay attention to how we show men too. Geena Davis likes to say, “If she can see it, she can be it.” We shouldn’t stop there — we need to see men who are involved fathers; men who seek help when they need it; men who question homophobia; and men who support women’s leadership and aren’t intimidated by it. To paraphrase Geena, “If he can see it, he can be it.” Whether you’re a policymaker, a media maker, or a consumer, let’s make this approach to gender equality a reality.

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