Writing Past Gender Biases: A Workshop by HacksHackers India, The Ladies Finger and Sheroes India

HacksHackers is group of hacks (journalists) and hackers (techies) who help each other out with what they know. This workshop is part of their initiative called #GenderXNews which aims to look at media reportage from a gender lens and also problems with our own reportage. It was facilitated by Nisha Susan and Gaurav Jain of theladiesfinger.com and H.R. Venkatesh and Nasr-ul Hadi of HacksHackersIndia. The Delhi event was hosted by sheroes.in on August 27th, 2016.

One of the biggest projects that Sheroes India does is Love Doctor which is platform to get confidential answers on sex and relationships from experts.

The Morning sessions consisted of analysing coverage of stories from a gender lens in recent years.

“In the main campus, it’s shirts and trousers with belt for men; and Cotton churidhar or salwar and knee-length kurtas for women. NO LYCRA LEGGINGS, DUPATTA COMPULSORY. After leggings and lycra were banned some years ago, security guards were asked to check for the material used by students.”

“When I first considered writing this article, I wondered whether this was a personal issue that I was blowing out of proportion, one that has no place on a public forum. But, when theatre companies are run by people who can casually boast about having been violent to women, when an actor’s intensity and dedication are measured by his lack of control over his actions, what seems personal becomes institutional. Speaking to other women theatre makers convinced me that theatre remains a boys’ club, and that abuse — subtle, insidious, or overt — is endemic to theatre in this country.”

“Glaring gaps persist in medical researchers’ efforts to understand gender differences in common diseases, two decades after the passage of pivotal legislation mandating that more women be included in government-funded clinical trials…Research still lags on understanding how treatments for heart disease — the number one killer of women — affect the sexes differently, because women make up only one-third of the participants in clinical trials to test drugs and medical devices, and most of these studies don’t report results for men and women separately.”

Another story on Atypical heart attacks in women in the New York Times reported that “Until shockingly recently — in fact, until this millennium — there was minimal research on women’s heart attacks because of widespread belief in the medical community that women did not have heart attacks. Research studies commonly used all-male subjects. Men with abnormal test results were treated far more aggressively than women with the same results. Women reporting the same symptoms as men were at least twice as likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis.”

New York magazine reported a similar gender bias in the growing field of exercise research.

“In visuals of Indian villages, in stories about rural India, in news clips about farmer suicides or about farmers coming together to demand their rights, women seldom feature. But women, as Khabar Lahariya reporters frequently find, plough fields, sow seeds and harvest crops–and run their households with little or no help from men, although women own only small quantities of farm land, according to a report by the National Commission of Women. Yet, in discussions of agriculture and farming, women rarely count.”

“It is not just the absence of open misogyny in Kabali, but a conscious effort at progressive gender politics that gives hope to fans of Tamil cinema. A ‘mass’ movie need not pander to patriarchy in order to be successful. Rajini may not be able to redeem his long career of such pandering or intentional cultivation of such a trope.”

“The group, known as the Deep Krida Mandal, was comprised of 40 members from the crumbling Zia Masum chawl. Thirty-eight of those members were school and college-going girls from the chawl.”

“She and a new generation of Muslim women are a challenge to old notions of the hijab as merely a coercive tool of male imprisonment. For them, it is an intensely personal and voluntary act. Yet, instead of asking for their opinions, hijab wars are now raging across the world on their behalf.”

“According to the 2015-2016 State of the Global Islamic Economy Report , Muslim consumers spend an estimated $230 billion on clothing. It wasn’t long before both couture and high-street brands took note. In September 2015, popular high-street brand H&M made a hijab-clad Mariah Idrissi the face of their new campaign . This January, Dolce and Gabbana launched a line of luxury hijabs and abayas, complete with their trademark lace detailing and embellishments. The D&G collection is aimed specifically at the petro-dollar rich Gulf countries, but other hotspots include Turkey, which hosted the first ever modest fashion week last year, Indonesia and the Indian sub-continent.”

“The survey [by Inter Media] revealed that more women in India are financially included than ever before, and women reduced the gap with men by 4 percentage points, the quickest among all the surveyed countries. However, finer details on their participation in the banking system are not available because the government is not releasing data on other financial-inclusion indicators.”

“Current medical education in India does not account for women who are unmarried and sexually active – a gap which significantly affects the quality of medical care that young women are getting. For many women we spoke to, the answer to “Are you married?” became the point from which their gynaecologists approached them….”Where doctors are unwilling to provide medical help to younger, unmarried women, or to take issues related to their sexual health seriously, they are willing and sometimes enthusiastic in their role as protectors of The Hymen.”

For a superb crowdsourced list of ‘non-judgy’ gynaecs, see here.

Contrast this to the several stories on P.V. Sindhu’s badminton silver in Rio 2016 which talked more about Pullela Gopichand’s coaching and shuttlecock ghagras.

The second session discussed examples of stories that showed gender biases. A checklist was proposed by journalist Christie Aschwanden called the ‘Finkbeiner Test‘ to avoid gender bias in media articles about women in science.

  • A list like this becomes relevant when this obituary of a pioneering scientist Yvonne Brill had more details about her domestic life than her achievements. For a critical analysis of the obituary, check this.
  • The perfect example of how not to do a profile of an actress is Anthony Lane’s story on Scarlet Johansson in the New Yorker. A good response to that came in the form of this piece.
  • Here is a data story on India Spend on the rise of women MLAs in Bihar countering the myth that they are not merely proxies for their husbands.
  • Media’s gossipy reports of Wikileaks cables on Mayawati sending an aircraft to buy footwear was demolished by this Roundtable India report.
  • Garment factory workers in Bangalore who protested against the government’s decision to allow withdrawal of employer contribution to PF only after retirement. Even though the media reported it as a traffic block, the government was forced to withdraw the rules (which would have affected a significant portion of the organised sector) under pressure from the garment workers.


The following session covered issues of reporting on sexual violence.

“The very first and most difficult thing women face after sexual violence is the decision to report the incident. Nothing you ever hear in your life encourages you to report rape. Fight corruption, yes. File RTIs, yes. Even perhaps send complaints to a consumer court if you get a faulty TV. But when you’ve suffered what you’ve been always told is the greatest violence a woman can ever face, the voice doesn’t necessarily go off in your head urging you to make the culprit pay. Instinct, culture, pain, everything tells us to crawl into a cave and lick our wounds. If we need to seek justice for rape, we need to be collectively rewired to report rape, and report it swiftly.”

“Where does India actually stand in global comparison? The official source of inter-country data on reported rape is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2012, the most recent year for which the UNODC has collected cross-country data, there were 24,923 reported rapes in India, or 4.26 reported rapes for every 1,00,000 women. This places India at 85 out of 121 countries for which data for 2012 is available. At the top of this list is a mix of developing African nations and industrialised western nations — Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Sweden. The United States comes in at 16 and Brazil at 18. It is, however, widely acknowledged that the rate of unreported sexual violence in Indian society is far higher than official statistics would indicate, and that this is likely to be a bigger problem in India than in other countries, as it is a more patriarchal society…Part of the reason India’s official sexual violence statistics are low is this lack of female autonomy. With rape within marriages not considered a crime in India, and the vast majority of women over the age of 15 being married, police statistics only represent that small proportion of sexual violence that occurs outside of the marital relationship. This lack of autonomy interacts with sexual violence statistics in one more key way.”

“The large number of news articles that quote Swathi’s family and friends talking about her ‘character’. Every article that I have read has a quick quote, as an aside, on how Swathi was a nice, reserved girl, who didn’t interact with strangers or men, and disliked any kind of conflict.”


The focus on what to do and what not to do while reporting sexual violence:

1) Use the term ‘survivor’
2) Don’t explain the details of the crime
3) Rape and murder gets reduced to rape with the assumption being that ‘rape is worse than death’
4) Do not give details of the venue of the crime
5) While doing interviews, do not give details of the survivor’s identity
6) Do not use suggestive graphics or images.

It was also noted that the name of the victim is more easily mentioned if they are from a marginalised class/caste.

The session concluded with a lighter note on the Bechdel Test.


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