Women in Media

This was when my WFI Membership & AnyVoices coincided, I’d seen WFI Clydebank were hosting a discussion, and actually volunteered to write.

Madness, I tell you. The pressure I put myself under writing this up was stupid, and a good example (possibly) of why women don’t like putting themselves forward. However both Angela & WFI tweeted it, so I hope it means it wasn’t too bad.

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Last week I attended Onslow Road Community Hall in Clydebank for an informal presentation and open discussion on the topics of women’s participation in Scottish media, and in particular, ways to achieve a balance in gender representation.

Women For Independence, as a group obviously feels strongly about representation of women in media, and has set up ‘Media Watch’ in order to highlight the gender imbalance of expert panels in both BBC & ITV’s political programming. This appears to be having a slight effect, even if that only extends to irritating the editors.

Angela Haggerty is the editor of CommonSpace, one of the new media sites which has sprung up after last year’s referendum campaign. It is funded through the Common Weal think tank, but retains editorial independence – the buck stops with Angela.

CommonSpace aims to provide an alternative point of view to traditional media outlets, yet it’s more than that. Unlike many of the pre-referendum sites – which concentrated on analysis and/or debunking pro-union press releases – Common Space undertakes investigative journalism and news generation. It has a small team of full-time journalists, and in the six months since its launch, CommonSpace has broken stories such as the hunger strikes at Dungavel (eventually taken up by the Guardian), and the Castle Howard buy-out in Argyll & Bute – which resulted in the uncovering of bullying within the higher echelons of the local authority.

Angela explained how she felt very strongly regarding the gender imbalance in traditional media, and relayed her fear that Scotland’s new media will fall into the same traps, despite the plethora of good intentions. As it is so often stated, women make up 52% of the Scottish population and yet are seen in much lower proportions in the media, especially with regards to political reporting and opinion.

She recounted one occasion when she had been one of just two women to attend a Scottish Newspaper Society Conference. She stated that every day she has an inbox full of opinion pieces from men eager to share theirs words and ideas, whereas finding a female writer willing to put herself and her opinions out in the open, is much more difficult.

Women are being promoted within the newspaper industry but even papers such as the Guardian, who class themselves as progressive, have only recently appointed their first female editor-in-chief – Katharine Viner. In general, women are only appointed to managerial positions in sections that are classed as more ‘female orientated’.

Areas such as politics, sport and gaming, are still seen as the preserve of males. Personally I’m not sure whether they think women aren’t interested, can’t understand or aren’t effected by these topics, but in a time when the Westminster policies are having a hugely detrimental effect on women and families, these attitudes towards women, and limitations placed upon them, seem highly regressive.

Angela said it is difficult finding women who are willing to put themselves forward and state their opinions in the public realm. She was hoping that Women For Independence could assist in the development and mentoring of a wide range of women’s voices.

The discussion at this point then began to focus on why women still find it difficult to speak up in mixed-gender environments, especially since Women for Independence provided a platform for so many excellent female commentators; such as Leslie Riddoch, Carolyn Leckie, Natalie McGarry & Rosie Kane.

Our chair for the night, WFI committee member Rebecca Jones, highlighted that WFI do have a speaker’s list, but the problem was getting members to put themselves forward. WFI members have experience in a wide range of subjects, but again it is difficult finding women who are willing to speak up on subjects and to stop hiding their talents.

There was a wide range of reasons given as to why the women attending the event found it difficult to put themselves forward. These included:
• Being taught when growing up that they shouldn’t speak up or complain.
• Being too aware of the audience (especially on radio phone-ins).
• Fear/nerves, heart thumping as they start to speak.
• Feeling that they have to know everything about a certain subject before even attempting to offer an opinion it.
• Feeling that, as women, the language they use, the speech patterns they follow, are not seen as ‘valid’.
• Some women feel they can only talk when they are passionate or angry about a subject. Yet when they do this they are usually dismissed as ‘too emotional’.
• However, if they are able to talk dispassionately about a subject, they are then accused of being ‘cold-hearted’ and uncaring.
• Not having enough practice in public speaking/writing and thus fearing to attempt it.
• The current debating styles, especially in politics, are too aggressive, and many women would not want to be put through it.
• Too much abuse targeted at women who do speak out.
• Time constraints. Either time taken to prepare or times at which commentators are required (evening/late nights).

Angela admitted that there is abuse, having been on the receiving end of plenty herself, and that initially you do become very defensive. However, you get to a time and a place when you realise that you are getting abuse because you are pushing the right buttons and making an impact. She asked what could CommonSpace do to assist WFI and other women get involved – such as forums, setting up practice debates – and added that, unfortunately, even though it is very easy to lose self-confidence when public speaking, it takes a long time to build it up, which only comes through practice. On the plus side, when you do fluff an interview, even if it does knock your confidence, the chances of anyone else remembering are very slim.

The key points for practicing public speaking were that you should pick a subject you feel strongly about. You should then research it thoroughly and then take the opposing view, investigate that and practice difficult/awkward questions that people might put to you.

These suggestions were warmly welcomed, and in particular the representatives from Paisley WFI, one of the more established branches, highlighted that they have set up a system of self-education on a number of issues, refusing to be “intimidated by guys in suits”. Other branches are now hoping to set up discussions over branch mentoring.

At the end of the meeting Angela repeated that complaining about inadequacies in gender balance to media outlets does make a difference, and reiterated very strongly that if anyone wished to contribute to Common Space, she would be happy to provide proper, supportive editing.

On a personal note, I know I’m an amateur, but I found writing this much more difficult than the others. I can discuss this issue for hours, but putting it into writing was much harder. I feel very strongly that my daughter’s generation should have positive role models in all aspects of the media, and am both grateful and depressed that there is the need for her to be taught at school about how women are portrayed in magazines, newspapers etc.

Women in media like Angela, Katharine Viner and Libby Brooks, and politicians such as Nicola Sturgeon, Mhari Black, Caroline Lucas, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood are great role models for young women, showing the traditional set ups are changing. There will of course be the expected push back from those that mistake the demand for parity as attempts to replace men.

Different voices enrich the political debate and all have the right to be heard no matter their gender, race or class. We’ve just had a time where a privately educated ex-commodity broker was seen as antiestablishment, presumably because he didn’t go to Eton! This to me shows how much change is still required in our media. I hope sites like this one will enable others to find their voices, and assist in creating a more balanced media in this country.

I sincerely hope that sites such as this one will enable others to find their voice, to gain that confidence to speak up, to do away with the fear and doubt that holds so many back, and to assist in creating a more balanced media in this country.

Angela can be contacted through the CommonSpace website

Featured image: Angela Haggerty

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