Mongolia was one of the first countries in Asia to grant women the right to vote back in 1924. Yet almost a century later, women are still relatively absent from public office and gender stereotyping in the media remains a problem, despite women being well represented in the country’s newsrooms as editors and journalists.
Sometimes gender diversity can be alleviated using simple tools to highlight the problem from within. And since becoming an official partner of the BBC 50:50 Project in January 2022, many media outlets in Mongolia have seen notable improvements by doing just that.
I recently spoke with Munkhchimeg (Muugii) Davaasharav, a freelance journalist and independent media consultant at the Media Council of Mongolia, to find out more.
The Mongolian media landscape
Mongolia covers a huge geographical area but has a population of just 3.4m people, 50 per cent of whom live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Around 90 per cent of the country’s 500 media outlets are based in Ulaanbaatar, and although internet coverage is widespread, local news outlets struggle to cater to smaller rural populations. For this reason, there are specific challenges when it comes to news desertification, and oftentimes people prefer to get their news via Facebook.
Like any country, there are broader challenges with gender equality in Mongolia. Just 17 per cent of the country’s members of parliament (MPs) are female, falling below the legal target of 20 per cent, the Asian average of 20 per cent and the international average of 25.5 per cent.
But this wasn’t always the case. “What people don’t realise is that we used to have around 25 per cent representation of women in parliament,” said Davaasharav. The weakening of women’s political participation was an unintended consequence of the decline of socialism and the democratisation of the country in the 1990s.
The picture is complex: women are well represented as professionals in the media industry. According to the Mongolian Media Today 2020 report, 62 per cent of creative staff (journalists, reporters, directors, and editors) in the media industry are women. Women also represent 49 per cent of decision-making executives in radio and television, 54 per cent in newspapers and magazines, and 56 per cent at news sites.
Yet a Global Media Monitoring Project study from 2020 found that a mere 18 per cent of government officials, politicians, ministers, and spokespersons appearing in news media in Mongolia are women. At the same time, women made up 68 per cent of those shown in domestic or caring roles.
That is why Davaasharav believes Mongolia should be doing better to represent its female population.
Improving media ethics and gender equality
Enter the Media Council of Mongolia. Set up in 2015 as a collaboration of journalists’ associations and media organisations, it functions as the independent “self-regulator” for the printed press, broadcast media and online media, managing complaints and encouraging apologies from newsrooms when they have been found to have violated its code of ethics.
Gender equality is also part of MCM’s remit. They offer support via training and capacity building programmes, and in the past six months have partnered with BBC 50:50 to improve gender balance in reporting.
MCM is an all-female team – although not deliberately so – and this reflects a high proportion of women media professionals in the country. “Men are mostly working on the tech side, radio and TV. But roles at newspapers and news sites, they’re mostly occupied by women,” said Davaasharav.
This makes the poor representation of women as subjects and experts in the coverage provided by those same media especially striking.
The MCM applies the BBC’s 50:50 methodology in a couple of key ways. “First of all, we monitor our events, trainings and conferences – making sure we have an equal number of men and women speaking on panels,” explained Davaasharav.
“Secondly, we encourage local newsrooms to join the 50:50 project,” she added. In the past month alone Zuunii Medee, one of Mongolia’s leading daily newspapers, and Gogo.mn, a popular news site, have both become 50:50 partners. The latter has already seen a jump from 30 per cent to 38 per cent of women in its coverage.
Mpress.mn has also become the first news site in Mongolia to make gender equality an explicit part of its newsroom policy, and also to support gender equality in politics.
“Our newsroom will support women leaders until the 2024 election,” Ariunbileg Oyunbilegt, founder and editor at Mpress.mn, told Davaasharav. “We will work to bring their voices to our readers and bring information on how more women representatives will positively impact our society and country. We will apply a gender lens to everyday content.”
Davaasharav is heartened by the positive response she is being met with. “After talking about gender-sensitive journalism for 20 years, when no one was really interested in it, it’s so good to see these organsations making progress when they are presented with real-world examples from the BBC, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, etc.”
Tracking changes: why it works
The BBC 50:50 methodology is really just a self-reporting tool via a tracking sheet developed between the BBC and each partner organisation – and yet simply by counting numbers of women and men across content, it seems to act as a consciousness-raising mechanism of sorts, leading to tangible results.
“We do this exercise for journalists where we bring the daily newspaper for them to count the sources, and to see how many of them are women and men,” said Davaasharav. “And it really helps them to realise, you know, oh, yes, we really have this gap. And when they do these things on themselves, and when they count, and when they see the results. It really goes to their heads.”
This is important, she pointed out, because the average salary of a Mongolian journalist is fairly low, at USD $300 to $400 per month. Sometimes, strained time and resources mean that editors are initially reluctant to add to their workload – so seeing a quick improvement for female representation after relatively little effort is satisfying.
Gender equality in media representation has been “kind of a blind spot for us”, she added. “Even when I started to work on this project, I looked back to my articles that I wrote for Reuters, for example, on agriculture, business and economy, mining – and it was mostly about men! And during our trainings with journalists, even those who write for international outlets or who worked for feminist organisations were surprised to see that they were not quoting enough women.
“But now at MCM we have developed this shared database of around 500 women experts on various male-dominated industries. And it’s really helpful to newsrooms and small media organisations with few resources.”
Main image: On 26-27 May 2022, the “News for Equality” coalition organised a hackathon to build a women experts database for journalists. There are five staff members of the Media Council of Mongolia (Gunjidmaa Gongor, executive director, Munkhchimeg Davaasharav, independent consultant, Ganchimeg Namsrai, manager, Ariuntuya Ayur, project coordinator, Amartuvshin Amarsaikhan, project coordinator) with some of the participants of the event.