The Women’s Room share their important work with the FWSA blog.
“If you were a woman you would have no hesitation about being screened?” These immortal words were not spoken in the 1920s, when women, still lacking full suffrage, were used to being spoken for and about like they were passive objects. They were not spoken in the 1970s, when despite the emergence of second-wave feminism and progressions in equality legislation, women could still expect to be infantilised and sexually harassed at their workplaces as a matter of course. In fact, they were not spoken in the 20th century at all. These words belong to John Humphrys of Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, and he spoke them on Tuesday the 30th of October, 2012.
2012. By which time women had had the vote for nearly a century, the right to determine what went on in our own uteruses for over forty years, and the right not to be raped in marriage for just over twenty. And yet, we were not considered able to speak for ourselves about whether or not we would, or should, get a mammogram. Instead, Humphrys felt the need to ask a man instead. Why? Because despite trying, Humphrys assured us, to find a female breast cancer expert, they had been unable to.
Considering this exchange came the day after the Today programme had run another all-male panel on women’s bodies – that time on teenage girls and their contraception, where one of the expert’s only qualification seemed to be that he had been on radio before – this was a red rag to a bull. No-one wants specially delineated “male” and “female” topics; this would only lead to further relegation of women to their own petty sphere, while men continued to get on with the big topics of the day. However, when women are not even invited to speak about their own bodies, let alone foreign policy; when a flagship current affairs programme can’t find one out of the hundreds of female breast cancer specialists that must exist in the UK; when a man whose only qualification for speaking is his radio experience, is chosen over any woman who has once been a teenage girl herself; well, then we clearly have a problem.
And it was to answer this problem that we set up The Women’s Room in a flash of rage and fury over the fact that, in the 21st century, women’s voices are still not being heard. We never expected it to become as big as it has.
We now have over 2000 women signed up, with specialisms ranging from Astrophysics to Sexuality – and being able to watch the entries come in is a mixed blessing. On the one hand I’m thrilled and proud to see the amazing, fascinating and diverse achievements of the women who sign up; but on the other, I’m disheartened by the fact that here are all these great women, clearly willing to speak or they wouldn’t have signed up, and yet the media gender ratio remains stubbornly at 4:1 – and often worse: in December 2012 BBC News at Ten ran an entirely male show.
We often get asked why this matters. Why should it matter if more rich privileged women get on TV and radio – how are they different to the rich privileged men we already have on there? Our answer to that is twofold. First, we don’t just have “rich privileged” women on the database – the idea that only those women can be experts is both telling and disheartening. There is of course, no denying that it is harder for women who aren’t white, middle-class and able-bodied to access traditional qualifications, but that does not mean that they cannot. Nor even if they cannot, that their voices are therefore irrelevant. Women have a myriad of experiences and perspectives to offer, and these are valuable and should be valued by the media, not dismissed as mere anecdote. Second, even privileged white women go through things like pregnancy; this can result in changes like the one recounted by Sheryl Sandberg in her new book about reserved parking right next to the building for pregnant women. No, this is not going to change the world on its own, but it certainly is better than no parking at all.
Similarly, women’s voices, no matter what their ethnicity, class or ability, matter. They add something to public discourse that a man of the same ethnicity or background cannot, and that is the perspective of a woman. This intuition has recently been confirmed by new research published in the International Journal of Business and Ethics, which finds that women do behave differently to men – which may explain why companies with women board directors perform 42% better on sales than those without. They also act as role models – both for women and girls: a US study showed that the presence of a a female Senator or candidate for Senate increased women’s ability to name one senator from 51% to 79% (the figure for men was 75%). Amongst young women, the presence of female faculty members had a significant impact on female students’ course choices –particularly in traditionally “male” subjects, such as maths, statistics and geology, which would suggest the presence of “stereotype threat”.
The impact that a single woman can have is undeniable, and our continued elision from public discourse is doing this country no favours. It is antiquated, it does not represent the country properly, and above all, it is wrong.
At The Women’s Room, we believe there is no need to speak to four men for every one woman, and we will not stop making a noise until there is gender parity on our airwaves and in our print press. Yes, the head of BP may be a man, but just because BP has been behind an oil spill, do any of us need to hear yet another man evading the question? Wouldn’t we all learn more from hearing from an environmental scientist, a risk analyst and, dare I say it, a local resident, all of whom might be women?
Help us change the voice of the media for the better. Help us make it more diverse and more representative of the public it serves. Sign up here and spread the word amongst your female colleagues and friends. Together, we are a force to be reckoned with – and let’s not let the male-dominated media forget that.