On 21 October, I gave evidence on the first day of the Inquiry into Women, News and Current Affairs, just launched by the House of Lords communications sub-committee. Together with Professor Suzanne Franks of City University, we answered a number of questions developed by the committee, largely in response to the written evidence which had been sent in by researchers and others working in the field.
Fortunately, I had had a bit of a sneak peak beforehand so the line of questioning wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it did feel a bit like a job interview, with each Lord in turn asking ‘their’ question. Waiting outside Committee Room 2 while those inside finished their pre-meeting was a slightly daunting prospect. Once we got started it was surprisingly enjoyable, not least because I knew what I wanted to say and managed to inveigle a few comments from leftfield, which didn’t always answer the question presented, but did make the points I wanted to convey. I was, after all, in the most effective and relevant place to exercise such a strategy and had been advised that I could answer questions that I wished the committee had asked, but had not done so. So I did.
There were no ‘tricky’ questions and the committee seemed genuinely interested in understanding why there are so few women in news and current affairs, both in terms of working in the sector and representation. Working as something of a double act, Suzanne and I had complementary experiences and expertise, and were therefore able to provide examples from our own research which corroborated each other’s views.
In particular, I was able to draw on my EU-funded research into women in decision-making in large-scale media industries which covered all the public service broadcasters in every member state as well as my management of the European aspects of the Global Media Monitoring Project. What these studies show, which I told the committee, is that women find it hard to get beyond the 30 per cent body count: approximately 30 per cent of decision-making positions across the major European media houses are occupied by women and the higher up you look, the fewer women there are.
As the focus or subject of news stories, women are even less visible, featuring in around 24 per cent of items in 2010, an increase of 7 per cent on the first study’s findings in 1995. This means that we will have to wait until 2050 before we seen women’s representation mirror social reality.
But why do we get what we get? There is no one answer to that but, as I argued, there are any number of reasons, related to cultural norms and habits; the preference to recruit ‘people like us’ which, if an organisation is stuffed with men at the top means, in effect, more men; the speed of news production which leads journalists to constantly seek out the same old, same old for a quick quote; and assumptions (entirely without evidence) that news consumers don’t really want to see women over 50 on the telly, or hear women talking about the economy, or see women writing about the war in Syria.
How can we change that picture? Making decisions based on whether people use the urinals or the women’s room, dress on the left or the right, can’t be sensible. Surely wasting the talents of 50 per cent of the population doesn’t make sense. Also dismissing older women presenters because they are, apparently, no longer attractive to look at (says who?) means that the most loyal demographic for terrestrial TV (older women over 50) can relate even less to the folks who are talking to them.
How about mandating Ofcom to require public service broadcasters, at the very least, to include gender-disaggregated statistics on performance in their annual reports? These statistics should indicate who works where in the organisation, show how they are implementing and monitoring their equality and diversity policies, and what actions they are taking to move towards achieving gender equality.
How about reinstating the Broadcast Equality and Training Regulator to monitor media performance and report on the results, or having transparent systems of selection, recruitment and promotion to ensure the best people get the jobs on criteria of merit and ability and not on the basis of tipping a nod to a favoured son? Why not read the research which shows that the most successful organisations are those which have a significant number of women on their boards?
Give it try. It’s not rocket science.
Photo credit: Roger Harris, copyright House of Lords
About the author
Karen Ross is professor of media at Northumbria University and describes her professional persona with many labels, including feminist, academic, political and social media activist. She researches and teaches on aspects of media, gender and politics and WLT connect with women who are interested in her work and who might find the outcomes of her research helpful in pushing their own agenda for gender equality forward.