Time to correct imbalance of genders in news media

Wed, Apr 4, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:The exclusion of women from current affairs threatens democracy, writes CLARA FISCHER

LISTENING TO any of the Republic’s major current affairs radio programmes, one could be forgiven for thinking that women, by and large, are not interested in the news or have nothing interesting to say on the serious topics of our turbulent political times – nothing, at least, that cannot be said better by a man.

Male voices dominate the airwaves, be it as presenters or commentators, a fact many of us suspected but didn’t have proof of until now. The National Women’s Council recently published its submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It set out its recommendations in a consultation document for the “draft code on fairness, impartiality and accountability in news and current affairs”.

This contained research showing that women’s voices accounted for fewer than a quarter of all panellists, presenters and newsreaders in current affairs radio shows aired by the main stations of the State.

The phenomenon of the extensive exclusion of women in the media is not limited, though, to the airwaves. Print media and television programmes regularly reinforce the impression that women are, or should, be non- contributors and that the hard business of politics and current affairs is better left to our male counterparts.

While this regrettable state of affairs is undoubtedly informed by sexist norms of femininity and masculinity (how many times have we seen the token woman invited on to a panel as the “soft” voice on traditionally “feminine” topics?), it also reflects the reality that the majority of top media jobs are held by men.

That is not to say that male editors deliberately exclude women or that only women placed in top posts can empower other women, but rather to assert that women can bring with them different perspectives that are easily marginalised in male-dominated systems.

In the formal political sphere, we have admitted as much by introducing legislation mandating for a minimum of women candidates in general elections. Should we follow suit in the media?

This very question has sparked considerable debate in Germany, where a group of high-profile women journalists have sent an open letter to the editors and publishers of the country’s main media outlets. The ProQuote campaign cited the fact that only 2 per cent of all newspaper editors-in-chief are women, while just three of the 12 public broadcasting directors of Germany are women.

The letter called for the introduction of a 30 per cent quota in all top editor positions, to be achieved over the next five years – a measure already instituted by the financial paper, Das Handelsblatt. Since its inception in February, the campaign has gained significant traction and a sizeable number of men have joined the ranks.

Whether such a proposal would meet with similar support here may be questioned. However, the dire need for a redressing of the even more extreme gender imbalance prevalent in the Irish media is indisputable.

The reasons for this are manifold: women’s exclusion, particularly from current affairs programming, results in a skewed debate, where only men’s life experiences come to bear upon the issues in question.

Additionally, the overwhelming presence of men as contributors and presenters, but also as editors and publishers, is agenda-setting. The very issues discussed reflect men’s priorities.

The lack of women’s voices in the media render women, more generally, invisible in our societies, which further feeds into exclusion in virtually all top-tier positions – be it in politics, business or the Civil Service.

The omission of women from serious debate also has a negative impact upon younger women and girls, who are implicitly told that politics and affairs of the State are not properly their concern.

Most importantly though, denying women the chance to partake in public debate undermines our right, as members of this society, to influence political discourse, and thereby to influence political decision-making.

If recent history has taught us anything, surely it is that the capacity to influence political decision-making should not be concentrated in the hands of those few who are unrepresentative of the wider populace and who have always had greater arsenals of power.

Indeed, women’s exclusion from political debate in the media is mirrored by our relative incapacity to influence political decision-making more generally.

Is it conceivable that the now infamous golf game Brian Cowen shared with Seán FitzPatrick could just as easily have been shared with a woman?

Access to political power has always been limited for women, be it via the traditionally male- exclusive golf course or the exclusionary culture of party politics. If our democracy is to benefit from the “fairness, impartiality and accountability” sought by the BAI, it is time to reform the political decision-making structures of Ireland, including the media.

Clara Fischer is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network and holds a PhD in feminist and political theory.

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