Germany: Female physicians underrepresented in the media

In Germany, two female virologists are now part of the media landscape. While they gained visibility during the pandemic, female medical voices have been scarce in the media.

Many glass ceilings, still to break

In Germany, two female virologists are now part of the media landscape. While the pandemic has given them the opportunity to showcase their expertise, this is far from being the case for the vast majority of German physicians. During the first wave, their voices were particularly scarce in the media.

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March 8 has been a public holiday in Berlin since 2019. The city, which is also one of Germany's sixteen federal states, previously had only nine public holidays a year, a far cry from Bavaria's thirteen public holidays. Amongst the choices considered for a new Berliner public holiday, March 8 was finally preferred to November 9 (the day of the fall of the Wall in 1989), or October 31 (the anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation). Instead of going for national history or religion, Berlin chose to celebrate International Women's Day. 

None of the other German “länder” has yet followed suit. Perhaps a symbolic symptom of how women in Germany, face many of the same glass ceilings in other European states such as France; and this translates unavoidably into the role and uphill struggles faced by female physicians in the country (and beyond).

Two crucial voices amidst the pandemic 

It is February 2020. At the Frankfurt University Hospital, Virology Professor Sandra Ciesek and her team tested 126 Germans repatriated from Wuhan, China. Two of them are confirmed positive for SARS-CoV2, one of which is and would continue to remain asymptomatic. The discovery is crucial: asymptomatic people can be carriers and thus transmit the virus without their knowledge. The other lesson from this work is that a throat swab is sufficient to detect the virus. A sample taken from the deep respiratory tract is not necessary.

The study results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine1, led to Prof. Sandra Ciesek being recognised as a COVID-19 expert. Since September 2020, she has been co-hosting the German-languange podcast “Coronavirus-Update: Der Podcast mit Drosten & Ciesek”, broadcast on the public radio station NDR, with her colleague Christian Drosten.

By June 2020, Europe's largest slaughterhouse, where an average of 20,000 animals are processed every day, becomes a gigantic cluster. 1,413 of the 6,700 employees from the meat company Tönnies, located north-east of Dortmund, test positive. 650,000 inhabitants in the region are confined for up to two weeks. Prof. Melanie Brinkmann, an expert in virology and previously a herpes virus specialist, conducts an investigation in the slaughterhouse premises. The results2 showed that transmission began in May 2020, when an employee contaminated his colleagues, some of whom were more than eight metres away. The main contamination took place in the plant’s processing area. In that section of the complex, the air is cooled down to 10C°, ventilation was poor and the type of physical work favoured transmission. 

If Professor Brinkmann is known in Germany, it is also because of her commitment against disinformation, which she describes as "deadlier than the virus itself". She is one of the four German physicians, along with Christian Drosten, who signed the open letter published on 7 May 2020 in the New York Times calling on Google, Facebook and Twitter to step up the fight against fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter, signed by some 100 experts from around the world, said that "to save lives and restore confidence in science-based healthcare, the technology giants must stop feeding the lies, distortions and fantasies that threaten us all".

In an interview with Spiegel in June 2020, Prof. Brinkmann also warned on the dangers of a group immunity approach: "It would take several years to establish sufficient group immunity. We still don't know how long this naturally acquired immunity can protect us. Moreover, we still have a long way to go before we fully understand the potential sequelae in people who have survived COVID-19". 

These two experts have found their place in the German media landscape. But when it comes to the pandemic, the three names that come to mind are rather those of the quintessential Christian Drosten and his fellow virologists Alexander Kekulé and Hendrik Streeck. Since it is difficult to find a reliable indicator of notoriety, let's take a comparative “license” on the number of people who follow these experts on Twitter: Drosten has almost 700,000 followers, Prof. Streek 107,000 and Prof. Kekulé 80,000. Sandra Ciesek and Melanie Brinckmann follow with 77,000 and 50,000 followers respectively.

The hidden part of the iceberg

42% of German virologists, epidemiologists and microbiologists are women. As are 47% of German physicians, across all specialities. But their place in the media, at least during the first COVID-19 wave, was very much in the minority, or even worse, a negligible amount.

Researchers in Rostock (Germany) and Stockholm (Sweden) analysed the proportion of women visible in the German media between 16 and 30 April 2020.3 They examined the content of the 174 news programmes broadcast after 18:00 hours on the main television networks. The results were shocking.

In total, for all subjects, there were four male experts for every one female expert in the media during this period. Women were most often consulted in the fields of education (45%) and social affairs (31%). It should also be noted that, in relation to the themes relating to the pandemic that were covered in these programmes (such as politics, economics, social affairs, medicine), the issue of violence against women in the context of confinement was only addressed once.

Same story in the print media. Almost 80,000 articles published in thirteen print media were screened. Of all the people quoted in articles about the pandemic (researchers, physicians, etc) 30% were women. Of the "experts" identified as such, 93% were male.

As the pandemic progressed, however, female physicians became more visible in the media. Dr. Jena Husemann, a general practitioner, wants to see this as an encouraging sign. In a podcast in the German publication “Ärzte Zeitung” (“The Physicians’ Daily”), she believes that one of the reasons is that "women have come forward and pointed out this imbalance".

1. Evidence of SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Returning Travelers from Wuhan, China. N Engl J Med 2020; 382:1278-1280 - DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2001899
2. SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in meat processing plant: Transmissions took place over long distances in air-conditioned work area. EMBO Mol Med. 2020 Dec 7; 12(12): e13296 - Published online 2020 Oct 27. doi: 10.15252/emmm.202013296
Universität Rostock (May 2020) - Geschlechterverteilung in der Corona-Berichterstattung: Frauen sind die wahren Heldinnen in der Krise - erzählen uns Männer.