From Iceland — Binders, Not Papers, Full Of Women

Binders, Not Papers, Full Of Women

Published August 21, 2015

Binders, Not Papers, Full Of Women
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

Back in the first quarter of 2001, Iceland’s Ministry of Education released an extensive report on women in media (PDF). Through wide-ranging surveys that examined a whole week of TV broadcasts and printed media, the report detailed how women were seen and heard much less than men, only appearing in 30% of primetime broadcasts, and only speaking in 15% of them. Fourteen years later, little has changed, according to an upcoming international report.

Watching the watchmen

Preliminary results from said report, due this autumn, show that little to no progress has been made in Iceland or worldwide. The Global Media Monitoring Project—the international watchdog organisation behind it—released a press release detailing “an increase of just 1% from five years ago when only 24% of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news were female.”

Well Documented Inequality

Women’s role, visibility, and inequality in media in Iceland has been examined in numerous academic papers. Here is a short list of some of the highlights from the past few years.

  • Nanna Árnadóttir’s 2011 thesis “Strength in Numbers?” showed how the newsroom hierarchy greatly favoured men over women, that all news outlets employed more men than women, and that state-run RÚV had a more egalitarian structure than privately owned Morgunblaðið.
  • Sunna Stefánsdóttir’s 2013 thesis “Bág staða íslenskra blaðakvenna” (“Poor Situation of Female Icelandic Journalists”) found women to be writing significantly fewer articles than men were, and that they had less opportunity to write stories about certain topics, such as sports, business and politics.
  • Arnhildur Hálfdánardóttir’s 2014 thesis “Aðgengi eða áhugi?” (“Accessibility or Interest?”) showed how women’s work was given less weight than that made by their male counterparts. It also revealed men’s pervasive blindness to their own privilege through qualitative research.
  • Kristín Ósk Elíasdóttir and Ragnheiður Hera Gísladóttir’s 2015 thesis “Eru karlar sýnilegri en konur í fjölmiðlum?” (“Are Men More Visible than Women in Media?”) revealed that women made up 30% or less of those reporting or being reported on in print media over a period of seven weekdays.

GMMP was established two decades ago, and conducts a one-day survey every five years. It examines women’s role in news in numerous countries, using a strict set of tools to interpret their representation as reporters, hosts, interviewees, subjects and more. Their 2010 report included Iceland as one of the surveyed countries, and the results revealed the dearth of improvement in the years since the Ministry of Education’s report.

We met up with Valgerður Anna Jóhannsdóttir, the person responsible for Iceland’s contribution to the GMMP. Her small office smelled like old papers, its shelves were stuffed with books and journals, and her desk was similarly cluttered with newspapers, magazines, and student essays.

Valgerður has twenty years of experience as a reporter for print, radio and television. She quickly rose through the ranks to become a supervisor, but said she struggled to balance shift work with family life, and contemplated dropping out, but somehow couldn’t imagine herself not working in media. In 2008, she found a happy medium, becoming an adjunct lecturer at the University of Iceland, where she leads the master’s programme in journalism.

She showed me her initial results for Iceland, which show that the total number of women writing, being interviewed or otherwise the subject of news is down to 24% from 27% in 2010. Additionally, 28% of news was reported by women compared to 33% in 2010, and women were the subject of news in only 20% of the cases, compared to 28% five years earlier. Valgerður said that the final numbers might come out a little differently, but the fact of the matter couldn’t be clearer: women’s presence in media is diminishing.

Binders, Not Papers, Full Of Women

No clear answers in sight

Valgerður noted that there were many theories behind why the number was so low this year both for Iceland and other countries. The survey was conducted on the same day in March that the Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed a plane into the Alps, so news outlets all over the world were busy interviewing airline CEOs, air-traffic controllers, and pilots, most of whom are male. And locally, labour and wage disputes made a lot of headlines in March, which meant union leaders, most of whom are male, were heavily represented.

Having said that, Valgerður didn’t believe those were valid excuses for this stagnation over the past five years. “It’s obviously not the case that women aren’t doing newsworthy things,” she said. “Instead, there’s something about how reporters work that makes them reach out to men rather than women.”

Valgerður pointed out how studies have shown that the general public more readily trusts men and their narrative, while women face much more scrutiny when they step into the spotlight. That’s not to say that men are more reliable, however, as Valgerður said they’re often simply less hesitant to speak when they possess an incomplete picture, while women prefer to prepare themselves and have the right answers.

In an environment where an increasing amount of news happens online—where speed is of the essence—it’s easy to see why many would justify just going straight to a confident man for answers. “One could debate whether it’s really to the article’s benefit to reach someone willing to speak before they think,” Valgerður said. “If women take longer coming up with a more accurate answer, then that might actually benefit the article.”


Statistics Iceland stated at the end of 2014 that 45% of the media profession was made up of women, and yet these women don’t seem to be getting their bylines attached to articles in equal measure, being stuck behind the same glass ceiling as fourteen years ago.

Valgerður doesn’t have a simple solution, other than hiring more women into newsrooms, and interviewing more women. She didn’t lay the onus on reporters to make that change happen; instead she believes management and owners of media companies need to take responsibility. At present, both state-owned RÚV and private media corporation 365 have stated in their official policies that they wish to be more egalitarian, and Valgerður believes that’s where improvements need to be made.

“Journalists face tremendous pressure and stress in their day-to-day jobs in delivering God knows how many news stories a day, and they routinely get very little support,” Valgerður said. “When there is demand for greater productivity but fewer people to meet it, the quality invariably suffers. Upper management needs to follow through with their lofty promises.”

Valgerður said that although she feels like women aren’t coming any closer to breaking through the glass ceiling, she would still like to believe that change is possible. “The attitudes fuelling the present status quo are deeply rooted, and tackling them will involve facing a lot of our own preconceived notions.”

Follow developments on the 2015 GMMP on

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