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CAB Update - Volume 6

Social Policy Issues > Codes > Sex-Role Portrayal Code

Sex Role Portrayal Code for Television and Radio Programming

October 26, 1990



1. Changing Interaction

2. Diversity

3. Demographic Spectrum

4. Exploitation

5. Non-Sexist Language

6. Balance

7. Visibility and Involvement

8. Program Development and Acquisition

9. Commercial Messages


This Code reflects the responsibility of licensees, under the Broadcasting Act, to assure that their programming and broadcast services achieve the highest professional standards and demonstrates the broadcasters' commitment to the fair and equitable portrayal of all persons in television and radio programming.

Negative or inequitable portrayal and representation of women or men can be expressed explicitly in programs and commercial messages, as well as implicitly through images, dialogue and character portrayal. Canadian broadcasters recognize the cumulative effect of negative and inequitable sex-role portrayal, and seek to address this issue effectively and responsibly with this Code, which replaces the previous CAB Voluntary Guidelines on Sex-Role Stereotyping.

This Code was developed in consultation with public representatives, including the Alliance of Canadian Television and Radio Artists [ACTRA], the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women [CACSW], the Canadian Coalition Against Media Pornography [CCAMP], Canadians Concerned About Violent Entertainment [C-CAVE], Children's Broadcast Institute, la Fédération des femmes du Québec, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women [NACSW], the National Watch on Images of Women in the Media Inc. [MediaWatch], and Toronto Women in Film and Video. Further public consultation occurred with individuals recognized as knowledgeable in this field.

The purpose of this Code is to serve as an effective guide to program development, production, acquisition and scheduling, recognizing that there can be no clearly defined set of criteria universally applicable to all Canadian communities at all times.

While the development of this Code, and other initiatives undertaken by Canadian private broadcasters in the area of sex-role portrayal are certain to have a positive effect, it needs to be understood that these guidelines can have minimal effect on broadcast signals or programs available in Canada which originate in other countries.

This Code of conduct dealing with sex-role portrayal in television and radio programming is designed to complement the general principles of the CAB Code of Ethics and other CAB voluntary codes.


In 1979, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission [CRTC] formed a Task Force on Sex-Role Stereotyping to encourage the elimination of sex-role stereotyping in the broadcast media. Among the CAB's recommendations to that Task Force were amendments to the CAB Code of Ethics to include clauses reflecting sensitivity to sex-role stereotyping.

The 1982 CRTC Report of the Task Force, Images of Women, directed private broadcasters to organize industry initiatives to address the issue of stereotyping in the broadcast media. In response to that challenge, and its own commitment, the CAB created and publicized the CAB Voluntary Guidelines on Sex-Role Stereotyping.

In January 1986, the CRTC released its review of the steps undertaken by broadcasters to sensitize licensees to the issue and to reduce the incidence of unequal portrayal of the sexes in broadcast programming. Following three public hearings, in which the CAB participated, the CRTC issued its conclusions in December 1986.

This CRTC Policy acknowledged a considerable increase in awareness of and commitment to the issue. It also praised the CAB's Voluntary Guidelines as "excellent statements of principles". In response to various concerns of the public, as well as broadcasters and the CRTC, the Commission also set challenges for the CAB which included the revision of those Guidelines.

This CAB Code for Television and Radio Programming is the response of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters to those challenges. It is intended to be administered by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.


It is the intent of this Code that broadcasters shall advance the awareness of, and sensitivity to, the problems related to the negative or inequitable sex-role portrayal of persons. This Code is intended to assist in overcoming systemic discrimination portrayed in broadcast programming, based on gender.

Television and radio programming and commercial messages shall strive to present an equitable representation of women and men in various social and occupational roles, at home and at work outside the home.

It is the responsibility of television and radio broadcasters to ensure that the provisions of the Code are brought to the attention of those persons within their employ entrusted with program development and production, program acquisition decisions, and commercial message production.

The objective of equal representation is recognized and the portrayal of women and men shall be comparable to, and reflective of, their actual social and professional achievements, contributions, interests and activities.

In addressing the issue of sex-role portrayal of women and men, broadcasters shall seek to broaden the comparable diversity of roles for all individuals.

Nothing in this Code should be interpreted as censoring the depiction of healthy sexuality. However, broadcasters shall avoid and eliminate the depiction of gratuitous harm toward individuals in a sexual context, as well as the promotion of sexual hatred and degradation.

Neither sex should be subject to degradation from gratuitous acts of violence. Television broadcasters and the public should also refer to the CAB Voluntary Code Regarding Violence in Television Programming, which contains a general provision concerning violence against women.

Broadcasters shall be sensitive to the sex-role models provided to children by television and radio programming. In this context, programmers shall make every effort to continue to eliminate negative sex-role portrayals, thereby encouraging the further development of positive and progressive sex-role models. The "sexualization" of children in programming is not acceptable, unless in the context of a dramatic or information program dealing with the issue.

In the scheduling of programs, broadcasters shall evaluate individual programs within the context of their overall program schedule, and within the context of broadcast services available within their market, to ensure a varied approach to programming content.

Assessment of a station's performance in relation to program development, acquisition, and scheduling, should take into account the station's overall schedule and record on the issue of sex-role portrayal. The availability of any program to viewers, from other sources within a broadcaster's coverage area, should also be a recognized factor in assessing program selection.

The Code is to be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Broadcasting Act.

No Code can reasonably anticipate every circumstance of negative sex-role portrayal. Therefore, the CAB expects such circumstances to be dealt with in the spirit and intent of this Code.


The CAB Sex-Role Guidelines are designed so that any interpretation of sex-role differentiation in television and radio programming is assessed in the dramatic or informational context of a program, feature, character, dialogue, voice-over or visual interpretation; recognizing that balance in presentation within a specific or individual program is not always possible or desirable.


Application of this Code is the responsibility of the individual licensee. Complaints and inquiries should be addressed to and dealt with by the broadcasting entity involved.

Complaints not resolved between the complainant and the television/radio station may be referred to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, which is charged with the enforcement of this Code, and the process which that entails.

The CAB will work with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to create awareness of this Code, by distributing copies to interested parties, as well as encouraging those broadcasters who subscribe to the Code to broadcast relevant public service announcements.


The following shall be referred to as The CAB Sex-Role Guidelines.


Non-Sexist Language is language that does not exclude one sex or give inequitable treatment on the basis of gender.

Negative or Inequitable Sex-Role Portrayal refers to language, attitudes or representations which tend to associate particular roles, modes of behaviour, characteristics, attributes or products to people on the basis of gender, without taking them into consideration as individuals. Negative or inequitable portrayal of women and men can be both explicit and implied.

Systemic Discrimination refers to action or treatment by organizations or a society which is categorically prejudiced against an individual or another group on the basis of gender, and which denies opportunity and advancement to an individual or group.

Voice-Overs are the audio overlays of dialogue, monologue or conversation in a television program, program segment, commercial, promotion or station break that do not come directly from the mouths of characters appearing on screen. This definition does not apply to portions of a news item, which are part of a stand-alone news report done by an individual correspondent. In radio, voice-over refers to the statement of information in station-produced advertising in which the announcer does not assume a particular character and is essentially anonymous. 1. Changing Interaction Broadcasters recognize the changing interaction of women and men in today's society. Women and men shall be portrayed, in programming, in a wide range of roles, both traditional and non-traditional, in paid work, social, family and leisure activities.

Guidance: The roles and opportunities for both sexes are becoming more diverse due to such factors as the elimination of female-only and male-only occupations, changing patterns of parenting and lifestyles. Women and girls should be portrayed in a range of roles as diverse as that shown for men and boys. Men should not always be portrayed as the aggressor in personal relationships. Women and men should be portrayed as working together in circumstances where the "power" balance does not always favour the man by virtue of his position or personal attributes.

2. Diversity

Television and radio programming shall portray contemporary family structures with an emphasis on the evolving range and diversity of families.

Guidance: Canadian society has evolved to where there is no single contemporary family structure, but rather a range of family lifestyles and family arrangements which differ across cultures, geographic regions and economic circumstances. The concept of "contemporary family structure" is meant to include a variety of family units such as marriages between persons of different races, single parents, families blended from different marriages and relationships, childless marriages and relationships, couples with adopted children, as well as the circumstances created by divorce and separation.

Television and radio programming shall portray all persons as supporting participants in family, home management and household tasks. Women and men should participate on an equitable basis in organizing such family activities as health care and financial matters, encompassing a wide range of responsibilities and decision-making roles.

Guidance: The interpretation of this provision depends to a large extent on individual experience and beliefs, and is therefore open to discussion. For example, in one family, the sharing in all chores and responsibilities related to family and home may be on a 50:50 basis, while in another, it may mean that one partner contributes as the wage-earner while the other offers an equitable contribution as home manager, performer of domestic tasks and/or caregiver to spouse and children.

Television and radio programming shall respect the principles of intellectual and emotional equality of both sexes and the dignity of all individuals. Television and radio programming should portray women and men as equal beneficiaries of the positive attributes of family or single-person life. Women and men should perform in a range of occupations and function as intellectual and emotional equals in all types of thematic circumstances. This should be the case for both work and leisure activities requiring varying degrees of intellectual competence.

Guidance: Women and men should be portrayed as working toward a comfortable existence through mutual support, both economically and emotionally, and in both public and private spheres. Despite the problems of societal systemic discrimination, television and radio programming should reflect an awareness of the need to avoid and overcome discrimination on the basis of gender.

3. Demographic Spectrum Television and radio programming shall portray the wide spectrum of Canadian life. Women and men shall be portrayed with fair and equitable demographic diversity taking into account age, civil status, race, ethnocultural origin, physical appearance, sexual orientation, background, religion, occupation, socio-economic condition and leisure activities, while actively pursuing a wide range of interests. Portrayals should also take into account the roles and contributions of the mentally, physically and socially challenged.

Guidance: Compared to men, the portrayal of women in television programming has often been more restricted with respect to age, appearance, background, occupation, lifestyle and interests. Additionally, the elderly, the disabled, and native peoples have also been under-represented. Special attention should be paid to increasing the portrayal of ethnic and visible minorities, whose presence constitutes an ever-expanding aspect of Canadian society.

4. Exploitation Television and radio programming shall refrain from the exploitation of women, men and children. Negative or degrading comments on the role and nature of women, men or children in society shall be avoided. Modes of dress, camera focus on areas of the body and similar modes of portrayal should not be degrading to either sex. The sexualization of children through dress or behaviour is not acceptable.

Guidance: "Sex-ploitation" through dress is one area in which the sexes have traditionally differed, with more women portrayed in scant clothing and alluring postures.

5. Non-Sexist Language Equality of the sexes must be recognized and reinforced through the proper use of language and terminology. Broadcasters shall employ language of a non-sexist nature in their programming, by avoiding, whenever possible, expressions which relate to only one gender.

Guidance: Sexist language is language that unnecessarily excludes one sex or gives unequal treatment to women and men. Such language may perpetuate attitudes or representations of persons which tend to attribute particular roles and characteristics on the basis of their gender, without taking them into consideration as individuals. Examples of non-sexist language are the use of occupational titles such as "fire fighter" instead of "fireman" and avoiding the exclusive use of masculine words in making general references, e.g. "synthetic" instead of "man-made". Broadcasters should refer to the CAB Guidelines for Non-Sexist Language for further assistance.

6. Balance Broadcasters shall achieve a realistic balance in the use of women and men as voice-overs and as experts and authorities. In news and public affairs programming, women and men should appear equitably, in a wide range of occupations and decision/policy making roles.

Guidance: Significant positive change toward an eventual goal of equal representation should be demonstrated. The objective should be accomplished in realistic and progressive increments.

7. Visibility and Involvement Broadcasters shall increase the visibility and involvement of women in broadcasting, both on and off the air.

Guidance: The objective of equal participation by women and men as both performers and policy/decision makers in the industry is recognized. Significant positive change should be demonstrated, e.g. more women in program credits. The objective should be accomplished in realistic and progressive increments, and in a manner consistent with the broadcast industry's responsibilities pursuant to Employment Equity legislation. Initiatives in this area should include women and men who are disabled, as well as persons who are members of ethnic and visible minorities.

8. Program Development and Acquisition Broadcasters shall exercise sensitivity to and awareness of the problems associated with sex-role portrayal in the development of domestic programming, and in the acquisition of non-Canadian programming for broadcast.

Guidance: In the development of domestic programs, broadcasters shall make station production staff aware of the Code, to ensure that local station programming conforms to the various aspects of sex-role portrayal outlined in the Code.

In the development, financing or acquisition of domestic programs produced by other than station or network staff, broadcasters shall ensure that participating independent producers and syndicators are aware of the Code.

In the acquisition of, or involvement in, non-Canadian programming, broadcasters should make every effort to evaluate program concepts relative to the Code.

9. Commercial Messages The various aspects of sex-role portrayal dealt with in the appropriate clauses of the Code shall apply to portrayal in commercial messages. Women and men should be portrayed in commercial messages with diversity in age, abilities, physical appearance, ethnic origin, occupation, family structure and household responsibilities.

Guidance: Station staff responsible for the production of locally-created messages shall be advised of the provisions of the Code, to be taken into account in the production of local commercial messages.

In terms of nationally-created commercial messages, broadcasters shall work closely with established organizations, such as the Telecaster Committee and the Canadian Advertising Foundation (CAF), to advocate the provisions of the Code and to co-operate in the ongoing educational process to increase awareness of the Code in the advertising industry.

Non-sexist language shall be used whenever possible. Overt sexual exploitation of either sex and gratuitous violence is to be avoided.

Commercial messages should reflect a balance of women and men as presenters and as voice-overs.

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