Three-D Issue 20: “Sometimes it’s hard to be a wo-man”, or how I learned to love Tammy Wynette but not always agree with (all) her lyrics

Karen Ross, University of Liverpool

On International Women’s Day this year, I was invited to give a talk about my recent research on women in media industries. Nothing unusual about that you may say, that is your expertise and of course, that’s absolutely right. But on this occasion, I was talking about the media’s poor record on representing women and promoting them into senior positions, to a group of media practitioners themselves, the invitation having come from a health correspondent working at the BBC who had recently agreed to take on a ‘gender diversity’ brief. As she tells it, she is a good choice for this beat because she is not known to be a strident, ball-breaking feminist and her more moderate stance thus diminishes the potential of her colleagues’ sidelining tendencies.  5 Karen R - q1So, anyway, I do my thing for half an hour, highlighting not just the findings from one or two isolated studies but showing the (depressing) trends in reportage and employment over the past few decades, mostly to a stony-faced audience (have they never heard of positive, non-verbal feedback like cue-ing and nodding?). And then we get to Q and A. From the sea (well, OK, the lake) of women attendees, a male hand shoots up.  Adam (not his real name) says:  “I’m a producer and I want the best people to come on my show, but how can I square that with getting more women on the programme?” I love getting asked that question, or one of its numerous permutations.  It’s amazing how many different ways there are to diss women’s contribution (to absolutely anything) without really trying or meaning to, or both – I have come across so many examples that I get dizzy just trying to recall them all – but this kind of question slyly equates more-women with less-worth. I love the question because it gives me the opportunity to do (at least) three things. First, to expose its implicit sexism, that is, women are obviously inferior to men, getting more women involved (in anything) means lowering standards and more generally, women are just less worthy, end of.  Secondly, to ask the audience, albeit rhetorically, to consider the inferred proposition that men’s domination of economic, cultural and political life is based simply on merit and acumen rather than dangly bits and deals struck in the urinals. Er, Bob Diamond? George Entwistle? The Chrises Rennard and Huhne? Third, to promote the existence of directories of experts which provide the names and contact details of thousands of women, any and all  of whom can be booked, with confidence, by programme-makers or used as authoritative sources on specific topics by journalists.

The point about relating this anecdote, outwith its own intrinsic interest, is that it parallels a similar tendency which I have encountered recently, a tendency which I thought had long been consigned to the dustbin of retrosexist academic thinking.  Just in the past three weeks, I have been sent emails urging me to sign up for conferences and seminars which have exclusively male speaker line-ups. Seriously? What’s going on?  Are there no women ‘out there’ worth listening to?  Whilst putting up a slate of both women and men as plenary and keynote speakers has become a sine qua non for the organising committees of MeCCSA’s annual conference, it seems that recognising the benefits of speaker diversity has simply passed by some of our colleagues.  This is not about special pleading – go on, give the girls a go for a change – nor about lowering intellectual expectations since there are already more than enough mediocre pundits doing the rounds, but rather about considering who has interesting/different/original things to say about X or Y. The ‘usual suspects’ are named as such precisely because they (mostly, but with notable exceptions) trot out the same old predictable same old. To take a little artistic licence from Mr Spock, it’s life Jim, but not as we know it in 2013. Perhaps, instead, it would be more, or at least as, interesting to hear the views of different actors, to see life from different perspectives, to take a bird’s eye view for a change?

Posted by Einar Thorsen