Gender stereotyping in the media: contributing to gender inequality

Rebekah attended the United Nations' Commission on the Status of the Women 62 (CSW62) in 2018. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Law at Central Queensland University (CQU).



The portrayal of women is paramount to influencing cultural attitudes and educating the generations towards a gender-equal future. As we are living in a digital age, the media has the potential and power to influence a culture which empowers and celebrates women. 

The current portrayal of women in the media falls short of Australia’s commitment towards encouraging women into leadership and influence in the country. The media is too often reinforcing gender stereotypes and sexualized images of women. A disappointing, yet prime example can be seen from the frequent sexist remarks of Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The media often focussed on her looks, sexual attractiveness and family situation in conjunction with her political movements (Trimble, 2018). The portrayal of women needs to be altered in a way that prevents exploitation and the degradation of women.  Rather than reinforcing gender stereotypes, the media ought to be utilized as an outreach platform to inspire and encourage women.

The current advertising system is too lenient and lacks any form of accountability. A strategic move is for Australia to revolutionize the standards of advertising involving women.  

This paper discusses the issues associated with the media’s exploitation and degradation of women, thereby affecting women’s choices, aspirations and advancement in Australia. This paper recommends creating firm monitoring systems and punitive actions to achieve unity and equality. 



The media is one of the strongest instruments to distribute mass information. It ought to be used as a platform to influence the attitudes and culture of Australians towards gender equality, opposed to reinforcing gender stereotypes.  Research has found that gender stereotypes in the media can enhance and condition negative attitudes towards women (Tom F. M. ter Bogt, 2010). Thus, shaping the socially acceptable “norms” and ethical standards towards gender equality, predominantly the status of women. 

Media output should create an encouraging culture which highlights gender equality and challenges prejudices, attitudes, norms and practices that uphold gender discrimination, marginalization and inequality (World Association for Christian Communication, 2018).

This paper discusses the adverse effects of gender stereotypes in the media and calls on Australia to utilize media to promote women in a positive manner, by monitoring media standards and holding businesses accountable for their media distribution. 



To eradicate gender stereotypes in the media, the following recommendations will be highlighted in this paper.

1.     Create a permanent regulatory body with powers to monitor media standards:

a)     Act as an interface to provide feedback on media standards, concerns and issues. 

b)     Provide educational information for businesses, journalists and individuals on gender discrimination in the media and how to uphold Australia’s standards.

2.     Amend the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics to:

a)       Create accountability for advertisers and their distributed material in the media by introducing fines for advertising which exploits or degrade women;

b)       Hold media accountable by ensuring corrections are published when breaches occur.  


Gender stereotyping in Advertising in Australia

Unfortunately, the media bombards the population with stereotypes of women. Gender stereotyping of women in the media commonly critique women’s appearance, promote women in domestic roles, hypersexualise women in advertising, and many other forms. Research claims that across more than 100 countries, 46 per cent of news stories in print, radio and television uphold gender stereotypes and only 6 per cent promote gender equality (UN Women, n.d.). Also, only 4% of news stories globally challenge stereotypes (World Association for Christian Communication, 2015). Too frequently the media is at the core of disempowering women. The media is notorious for conditioning the population with the message of identifying women’s value to their external appearance and sex appeal, as opposed to their intellect, capacity to lead and influence others. Over the years research has found that media affects the development of sexual attitudes, predominantly among youth (Tom F. M. ter Bogt, 2010).

As women's contribution in society has increased significantly in comparison to the last century, the depiction of women in the media should reflect this. 

The psychological effects of gender stereotyping and sexualisation of women in the media have been proven to prompt adolescents in ways that are congruent with socially prevailing gender roles (Tom F. M. ter Bogt, 2010). It is common for youth to turn to the media for advice and instructing on romance and sex where parents may fall short (Tom F. M. ter Bogt, 2010). We are shaping and encouraging the generations towards the sexualisation of women by constantly promoting the negative portrayal of women in the media.

Furthermore, a study undertaken on media revealed that when people are frequently exposed to negative representations of women in the media, girls and boys, men and women, are likely to receive confirmation that “exterior appearances are a priority for women, and that men are sex-driven creatures whose cool and tough looks” enhance their skills to impress a woman (Tom F. M. ter Bogt, 2010).

A survey conducted on young women revealed that 56 per cent agreed that a women’s appearance prevails in their value for their intellect (Unilever, 2017). Throughout this survey, the female participants mentioned, based on their experiences, that highly sexualised images of women in the media, and more prominently pornography, was instilling a negative impact on young men’s attitude towards sex (Unilever, 2017). The same women were asked how they would like to build a safer digital environment, they commented that they would like more online media authority with the right power and protection for all girls. 


Recommendation 1: Create a permanent regulatory body

Advertising standards in Australia are governed by the Advertising Standards Board (“ASB”), which is a self-regulatory system. Self-regulation creates a gap for businesses to advertise in their desirable method. As a result, there is a track record of content which degrades the status of women. Self-regulation is reactive rather than preventive. The absence of a regulatory body places the burden and responsibility upon consumers to complain and report inappropriate forms of advertising.  

An example of a business which has sparked great controversy by disseminating advertisements of highly sexualised images of women is Honey Birdette Lingerie. Recently, Honey Birdette was slammed with complaints about being a contributor to sexualising women. This has been a repeating offence for this business in the past. Positively enough, the controversy caused over their recent advertisement pushed the Australian Association of National Advertisers (“AANA”) to update the Australian National Advertisers Code of Ethics {“Code”) to ban advertisements which were exploitative or degrading.

The Board who make up the ASB is comprised of individuals from a broad range of age groups and backgrounds to represent the diversity of Australian society (adstandards, n.d). When a complaint is made, the Board reviews the Advertisement and determines whether the content breaches the Code. There is never a guarantee for accountability as not all complaints have been successful or upheld. Supporting this, I refer to the top 10 most complained advertisements from 1 January 2017 to 30 June 2017. One out of ten complaints were upheld for discriminatory, exploitative and degrading content (adstandards, 2017).

In Moldova, they have implemented a policy which requires advertisements to be removed if found engaging in sexist advertising. Further to this, they produced a guide to assist companies in identifying whether gender discrimination exists in their materials. They also work with a diverse range of businesses in the advertising field to increase knowledge and understanding around sexist advertising (Elena Ratol, 2017). 

The ABS should be integrated into a permanent regulatory body with qualified experts in the field of advertising with expert knowledge of the Code. They should be able to monitor advertisement standards, monitor complaints, and provide information and support to professionals engaged in the creation and dissemination of advertisements, and provide greater education about sexist advertising. The body should monitor advertising standards and complaints, ensure breaches are remedied, take steps to remove advertisements in breach of the Code and allow the community to raise investigations into companies which appear to be serial offenders in upholding gender discrimination.

The regulatory body may wish to expand upon the current AANA website, and act as an interface for people to provide feedback, raise awareness and concerns of advertisements and the conduct of businesses. The intent of this recommendation is for businesses to revaluate their standards through critical examination. The website could also highlight businesses who engage in promoting and empowering women in the media in a positive light. This exposure would be a great incentive as it could strengthen consumer and business relationships thereby benefiting those businesses who cooperatively engage. Big companies such as Audi, are leading the way to celebrate women, as seen in their recent advertisement, which ends with the tagline “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work” (Lauren Gurrieri, 2017). 

It is time to shed light on the celebrators, not the oppressors, and to tighten the leash on the Advertising Standards so that eventually, no woman has to be exploited and degraded again.  


Recommendation 2: Amend the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics 

To strengthen the portrayal of women in the media, powers should be conferred upon the ASB to issue punitive fines against businesses who engage in advertising which are degrading and exploitative towards women.

The Code contains the regulations for Australian Advertising Standards. As previously mentioned, the Code has only recently undergone amendments to eliminate the use of women’s sexual appeal in the media which is exploitative or degrading (Ad Sandards, 2018).  Prior to March 2018, the Code required the content to be both exploitative and degrading, in order to constitute a breach (Ad Standards, 2018). The definition of ‘exploitative’ has also been updated in the Code to “taking advantage of the sexual appeal of a person, or group of people, by depicting them as commodities or, by focussing on body parts where this bears no relevance to the product or service being advertised (Ad Standards, 2018).

Despite the recent amendments to the Code, there continues to be a lack of accountability for companies. If a complaint is made to the ASB and the Board upholds the complaint, the advertiser is required to remove or amend the offending advertisement (Ad Standards, 2018). This approach has not achieved great success in the past as there has been a pattern of reoffending. 

The United Kingdom recently conducted a review on the repercussions of harmful gender stereotypes in the media. As a result of the review, the United Kingdom has now abolished harmful gender stereotypes in the media (CAP News, 2017). The Review revealed that harmful gender stereotyping in advertising impacted women’s choices, aspirations and opportunities. 

The commitment towards eliminating sexist advertising has also been a priority of Moldova. In 2016, Moldova implemented fines for companies engaging in sexist advertising for the promotion of their goods and services. (Unwomen, 2017). Their Law also requires that they remove the advertisements if the advertisement is considered to be sexist. 

If legal and monetary consequences are put in place, businesses will be obligated and motivated to comply with the “spirit of regulation” in order to avoid further punishment and public scrutiny. If there is no accountability women will continue to be vulnerable in the media. The Advertising Standards should aim to support gender equality champions while enforcing ramifications against those who fail to cooperate. 

Australia’s lack of accountability will only continue to delay gender equality while stereotypes are upheld in the media. If there is no punitive damage, there is no incentive for society to disengage from the conduct. A system of retribution should be the next step forward to cease companies from abusing their power and success and reputation. Advertising which positively highlights the value of women-only has a place in a future towards the empowerment of women.



The stereotypes and misrepresentations of women in the media are conditioning people on how to treat and value women. These attitudes of the media shape the behaviour of Australians and prevent progressive movement towards gender equality. The current misrepresentations and degradation of women in the media ought to be shattered. This can be achieved by implementing a regulatory body to monitor advertising standards, ensuring punitive damages are enforced against those who breach the Code. This method aims to reinforce Australia’s intolerance to gender inequality and the nation's commitment to the empowerment of women to progress gender equality. 



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