Immigration reporting's gender bias, and tips to overcome it

Feb 4, 2020 in Diversity and Inclusion
Rally to support U.S. immigrants

Women make up nearly half the population of immigrants worldwide, yet when it comes to media coverage, their voices often are missing from the mix. An analysis by the Fuller Project for International Reporting sheds light on why this gender gap exists, and on what kinds of stories we tell — and don’t tell — about immigration in general.

Fuller’s review of 100 stories on immigration from various news media found coverage focused almost exclusively on national security, conflict and crisis. Issues impacting women specifically were sorely lacking. The sample was randomly drawn from the Migratory Notes’ newsletter, which compiles articles on migration.  

“The findings helped identify underreported stories that were important to the national conversation on immigration,” said Fuller Project co-founder and executive director Xanthe Scharff. The Fuller Project reports globally and in the United States on issues that impact women. 

“The absence of women’s voices was striking,” said Rikha Sharma Rani, a reporter who spearheaded a year-long reporting series on immigration and women for the Fuller Project in hopes of filling the gap identified by the study. 

[Read more: 5 tips for reporting on migration in Africa — and around the world]


The results of the content analysis painted a dismal picture of how immigration reporting leaves out women.

Among the findings: 

  • Only two out of the 100 stories focused on issues that directly affect women, such reproductive health and domestic violence. 
  • Women were quoted half as often as men in the 100 stories.
  • Only one article focused on the accomplishments of women immigrants and their contributions to society. 

Not only does the coverage fail to acknowledge that women face unique challenges as they migrate, but that they make meaningful contributions once they’re settled. A report by the National Business Women’s Council noted 40% of immigrant entrepreneurs in America are women, and 13% of all women-owned companies are run by women born outside of the U.S.

According to a report in New American Economy, immigrant women play critical roles as caregivers and service providers all across the country. As entrepreneurs and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workers, they have helped spur economic growth and innovation. Without consciously acknowledging women’s economic role, and leaving their voices out of coverage, these stories go overlooked. 

Besides the focus of stories, the team at the Fuller Project also identified gender bias  in the sources quoted in stories. Male government and law enforcement officials who deal with immigration were three times as likely to be quoted as women immigration officials in the stories examined in the study. 

Although government immigration workers tend to be disproportionately male — only 5% of Customs and Border Patrol agents are women — there are women experts in a variety of fields capable of commenting for stories. Yet male voices predominated in the coverage. 

The Fuller study concluded that journalists need to make a concerted effort to include the voices of women and girls in media coverage of immigration. 

[Read more: Beyond the border: A conversation with Maya Srikrishnan]


In a co-authored Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article, Rani addressed questions about gender bias in immigration reporting: “The failure to tell a more representative range of stories about the immigrant experience helps push a largely derogatory and inaccurate narrative of immigrants. These narratives influence which policies are embraced by the public and endorsed by their representatives in government.”

The first step to fairer coverage is building awareness that women are underrepresented, as the Fuller study does. Then, reporters should go the extra mile to find their missing voices. 

Rani offered the following advice for building the immigrant narrative, with an eye toward giving women fairer coverage:

  • Broaden the lens. Look at how immigration touches all aspects of society, from the economy to education and politics. Take a wider view of the impact immigrants make when they resettle — men and women. In CJR, Rani writes, “How might our debate on immigration be different if more stories showed immigrants building flourishing businesses, working in public service, and contributing in a myriad of ways to the betterment of communities?” 

  • Go beyond the border. Once people enter into a new country, there is a tendency for reporters to drop the story. Yet, for immigrants, this is the beginning of their dreams for the future. What transpires when they start a new life? Where do they live, what jobs do they take on and what are some of the biggest challenges they face? Ask these questions in general, then take a closer look at how immigrant women are settling in, specifically. 

  • Explore root causes of immigration. Rani called the reasons people leave their home countries “a hugely under-explored piece of the immigrant conversation.” Investigate why people are leaving their home countries, and explore potential policies or changes that are working to address these root causes. 

  • Investigate violence as the culprit. Women are largely the ones affected by domestic violence, which was accepted in the U.S. as a reason for seeking asylum until 2018, when the 2014 decision was reversed. To gain a greater understanding, Rani suggests comparing and contrasting countries in a single region to see how they handle violence within their borders. Which have been most successful at quelling domestic violence or attacks by criminal gangs? What policies are in place that work? Would these same strategies be effective in other places?

  • Look beyond crisis and failure. Journalism’s watchdog role in exposing wrongdoing and drawing attention to problems remains important, “But if that’s all you’re reporting, you’re creating a very misleading picture of immigrants,” said Rani. “There are so many untapped human interest stories out there. The challenge is to make sure women’s voices and their issues are included in the overall conversation.” 

Don’t know where to begin? Below is a link to a story profiling strong female voices, both as main subjects and as sources. It was produced as part of a partnership between Fuller Project and ELLE UK.

'Men Kill Women Because They Can': Inside El Salvador's Devastating Femicide Crisis, ELLE UK

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Nitish Meena.