This week, the Guardian published a report into underrepresentation of women in the media, and I have to say I was shocked but not surprised to learn that male journalists wrote 78% of all front-page articles examined and men accounted for 84% of those mentioned or quoted in lead pieces.
I’ve written about sexism before, arguing that there is an emerging form of women-on-men sexism, so I consider myself a reasonably lateral thinker in the sexism and gender inequality debate, but I found myself scoffing at the BBC director general George Entwhistle’s lame response to the fact that 84% of reporters and guests on Radio Four’s Today programme are men. “The Today programme struggles because we are dealing with… the world as it is, and that’s a very male place. What the BBC often reflects is the way the world is.” Er, newsflash George: the world is only a “male place” if you treat it so.
Days later I was discussing the BBC’s Today programme with one of my colleagues, and I confessed that if I ever did make it as a successful national journalist and were asked to appear on the programme, I’d feel a bit like I’d been fed to the lions. “I’m not sure I’d agree to appear”, I said. His immediate response: “I would”.
Enter the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore, who appeared this week on Today, debating abortion with Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan. While she fully admits in an article after the catastrophic debate that it was not her “finest hour” (she and Hassan talked over each other frequently and she seemed shrill), and while I disagree with her when she states that Today’s debate structure “is tired and goes nowhere”, I can’t help but empathise with her in that I too would have felt like “I should have…gone to a training camp where they teach you how to debate”. The Today programme is Oxbridge debate club, it is male-dominated and it is intimidating. And I wonder just how respected I would have felt at being introduced into the debate with a patronising “What was your reaction dear?”, which was John Humphrys’ first utterance to Moore.
The same week I saw a Newsnight discussion on Jimmy Savile chaired by a man, with three male contributors and Vanessa Feltz as the only female contributor. The debate raged fiercely back and forth between two of the male contributors, and the third male who was a senior at a child abuse support charity was given frequent air time. The editors gave Feltz about a minute on screen, and I’d never witnessed such a blatant quota-filling. If they didn’t value Feltz’s opinion, why didn’t they chose a different commentator? And if they needed a child abuse charity spokesperson, was the only one they could find a man?
On work experience placements I’ve observed senior-level boardroom conferences at The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. At each of them the male:female ratio averaged at about 11:2. In the boardrooms themselves the men were far more forthright in discussions and women spoke – and were heard – less. Women are clearly under-represented in the media and in journalism. The question is why. Why do less women get bylines, less women appear in broadcasts and less women make it to boardroom level only to be heard less once they reach it?
I argue that this isn’t down to some deep-seated intrinsic misogyny but more a case of psychology, and how men and women subconsciously interact with each other. During my first week on my Journalism M.A. at City University, I noticed that despite the women being equally as intimidating on paper as the men, the blokes seemed a lot more confident about speaking up in our class of fifty, answering questions and giving their opinions, and although the male:female ratio is slightly more balanced at around 30:20, I couldn’t help comparing it to the boardroom scenes I’d witnessed so many times.
In a discussion with some of the guys on my course I put it to them that maybe the men speak up more in the classroom (and therefore the workplace and boardroom) more than women because they think differently. Men generally have a tendency to act first and think second, whereas with women it’s the opposite, or, as we put it in the pub, “Men care less about looking like a tw*t for a few seconds than women do”. The nanoseconds it takes to make a decision on whether to say your piece in a discussion is crucial before the topic rolls on, so men would perhaps say a point or speak their mind in a boardroom or in a class of fifty without worrying if they’d look stupid, where in the seconds-difference in speaking up, women may subconsciously consider their point as well as what the reception of it would be and what the implications of making it are.
In addition to men and women thinking differently, there is the obvious impact of the fairer sex generally being fairer voiced. Humans naturally hear- and listen- to a voice that is deep, loud, low and slow, so in a fast-paced debate it’s easy to see how a higher-pitched, softer, quieter and faster-speaking voice could be drowned out or ignored. I also think there’s something in the psychology of appearance and work-wear. The man’s suit, subconsciously, is a power symbol, both to himself when he puts it on to enter the work-place arena and to those around him. Even visually, the symmetry and defined lines of a man’s suit, shirt and tie create a powerful image. Women’s work-wear is wishy-washy to the point of insignificance, comprising of a collection of cardigans, blouses, skirts and tights, with no clear definition between work-wear and other-wear, which creates a degree of uncertainty both visually and in the mind.
So what’s the solution? Slip on a man’s suit and start boorishly shouting your opinions every few seconds? Not exactly, but I would advocate a variation on that, by psychologically squaring up to the men. Women should take a chance on speaking out more, as well as slowing down the pace of speech and lowering the tone of voice. High heels don’t just make legs look amazing, they also give an added few inches and men hate it when women are taller than them, let alone when they have to literally look up to them.
I told my male colleagues early on in the course that my intention was to speak up in discussions as much as them, as terrifying as it is, because my motto is “fake it ‘til you make it”. I hope that after a year of discussions in front of fifty people, I’ll become more articulate and will learn to present my opinions cogently and forcefully, so that if I ever make it to boardroom level at a newspaper, men – and women – will sit up and listen to what I have to say.
It’s in women’s hands to shift their unfair underrepresentation in the media. Deliver that pitch. Have your say. Argue your case. Get that byline. Speak your mind. Louder, better, faster, taller, stronger. Projecting an air of confidence which we may not feel is half the battle won.