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Oct 16, 2012

Simons: how media perpetuate women's silence

Men dominate the media, both creating it, and the people it covers. Is it any wonder it cynically dismissed Gillard's irritation at sexism?

I subscribe to The Australian Financial Review iPad app. Every morning when I load it, I get rather depressed. The reason is that the cover page — the thing you look at as the little wheel spins and the page loads — has pictures of business leaders on it. There are 20 stylised images of leaders. Only five of them are women.

So much has been written and said about Julia Gillard’s speech in parliament last week, and about whether the Canberra press gallery and mainstream media missed the point, that one hesitates to enter the fray.

Of course the context was murky and ignoble. But I think it is clear the speech will be remembered, and probably anthologised, long after everybody has forgotten Peter Slipper’s name. And that means those commentators who dismissed her words broke a cardinal rule: be sceptical, but not cynical. This was an important speech, and most mainstream journalists missed its significance.

Why did they miss the fact that a woman leader speaking out publicly about the s-xism she has had to confront was news of interest to millions? There are many reasons, but one of them is surely that unexamined s-xism is pervasive in journalism and in newsrooms. We swim in that goldfish bowl, and are partly to blame for the nasty stale water. We are desensitised.

Thus, reporters of both genders unwittingly perpetuate “the way things work”.

On the weekend, The Guardian newspaper reported research by industry body Women in Journalism. The research found that in British newspapers, 78% of front-page articles are written by men, and 84% of those quoted or mentioned are male.

How would Australian newspapers stack up? While there is plenty of Australian research on the gendered newsroom based on interviews with female journalists and editors, and other studies that talk about women being less likely to get senior posts and big stories. I am not aware of any local research that counts the bylines and the quotes in this way.

So I did my own rough little survey yesterday, counting the bylines on the front page of The Age and The Australian.

The Age came out worse. Four stories on the front page — and five bylines, all male. Only two women were mentioned or quoted — Shirley Shackleton and Julia Gillard. Fourteen or 16 men were mentioned or quoted, depending on how you count. Ironically, the blurb at the top advertised the “s-xism debate” on inside pages. Admittedly, two out of the three blurbed authors were female, but even counting them did not even the balance.

The Oz had seven stories on the front page. There were seven male bylines and one female — Paige Taylor. Eleven men were mentioned or quoted, and four women — Gillard, Bravehearts director Hetty Johnston, Northern Territory minister Alison Anderson and opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop.

I also did a count on Crikey‘s email bulletin yesterday. I counted 18 stories including “Tips and Rumours” but not including First Dog on the Moon or the comments section. Ten male bylines, with some appearing over multiple stories, and only two females (one the intern, the other a journalism student).

I wish I could believe that yesterday was just a particularly bad day. And of course I understand that journalists might protest that they are merely reflecting a world in which most ministers, corporate heads and commentators are male.

And that is true. Media are only part of the problem, not the whole of it and not the only causal factor. But as an excuse, it is also not good enough. Take, for example, the work of the Women’s Leadership Institute in Australia, and its Women for Media resource which lists numerous females who are ready, willing and qualified to comment on business, finance, government and the not-for-profit sector.

Why is it necessary to have a special effort to promote these highly qualified women in to the eyes of the media? Why does the media not go to them as a matter of course? Why are they not on the cover page of The Australian Financial Review iPad app? Why is there not an effort in every newsroom to seek them out, where appropriate? Why are we not more ashamed of front pages that talk only about men?

Many media outlets want more women readers. There would seem to me to be a simple tactic that has not been fully tried: write more about women.At the uglier end of the spectrum, there is the kind of coverage that the EVA Awards, for reporting of violence against women, were designed to combat. That is, the kind of reporting that suggests, subliminally or otherwise, that women are somehow to blame for violence against them.

Thankfully, as a judge of the EVAs this year, I can report there has been a big improvement in reporting over the last few years. When the awards began, I am told, it was hard to find examples of meritorious reporting. These days the competition for the awards is hot. Thank heavens for that.

Outright misogyny and clear patronising comments might be the exception these days in the media, but nevertheless day after day our mainstream media gives the impression that news is a fundamentally male domain, and that public life is really about men. When women take the stage, there is still an air of exceptionalism about them. And, sadly, they are more likely to be attacked or assessed in a way that men would not be.

research article by the NSW Parliamentary Research Service gives the following examples of media coverage of female politicians, with the first few being drawn from how the media reported Gillard when she and Kevin Rudd announced they would lead the ALP into the next election in 2006:

“Julia Gillard was sporting a new hairstyle yesterday to go with her new job of deputy Labor leader.” (Herald Sun, December 5, 2006)

“On what should have been one of the proudest days of Gillard’s political career, she bungled it with a less than flattering haircut and a frumpy ’80s tapestry print jacket.” (The Daily Telegraph website, Anita Quigley Blog, December 5, 2006)

“Julia Gillard, Labor’s new deputy leader has a great man — and stylist — behind her … Mr Mathieson also prepared Ms Gillard by giving the famous flamecoloured locks a blow-wave.” (The Age, December 5, 2006)

There are also some examples concerning other female politicians. How’s this:

“Pru Goward, former journalist, academic, bureaucrat, federal s-x discrimination commissioner and now hopeful politician, is posing for photographs. The 54-year-old is comfortable in front of the camera, even in the jacket she insists on wearing, despite the heat — to ‘hide my arms’, she explains. Such a candid and disarming display of vulnerability is instantly endearing, as is the rest of her ensemble — unscuffed RM William boots and a floppy sun hat that won’t stay on in the wind.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, February 22, 2007)

Or this about Maxine McKew:

“When we meet for coffee, she’s surprisingly small and delicate in person, with fine blonde hair and rather pale tawny eyes. She smiles often and has that skill of immediately conveying warmth and intimacy without being flirtatious, making her the kind of woman that other women want to be and that men find instantly charming.” (The Sun-Herald, Sunday Life, April 8, 2007)

Conservative women are not immune. Although Bronwyn Bishop this week labelled Gillard’s speech “pathetic”, a cursory Google search shows up decades of unacceptable s-xist comments directed at her, largely by politicians but also by media. You don’t have to look too far to find similarly shameful material about Julie Bishop.

The mainstream media should never underestimate the wells of anger that are tapped when a powerful woman speaks out about the underlying s-xism she deals with. There is a suppressed irritation at the low level crap that women in public life have to put up with. It is the more powerful precisely because it is rarely voiced or given a platform.

The media is not wholly to blame, but it is most certainly part of the problem, and not sufficiently focused on being part of the solution. Perhaps that is why some journalists were so blind to the power of Gillard’s words, and preferred to focus only on their murky context.

A female national leader, centre stage, talking about this kind of stuff? Oh yes. That’s news.

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24 thoughts on “Simons: how media perpetuate women’s silence

  1. Limited News

    Speaking as a man® I was irritated by Q&A last night. Shorten undersold Gillard’s argument on misogyny. He didn’t quote any of the remarkable quotes in Gillard’s speech on what Abbott had said eg women are not physiologically suited to leadership. So I turned off the TV in anger. I’m not sure any man who hasn’t truly watched Gillard’s speech (as opposed to a 10 second excerpt) is qualified to speak on the topic.

  2. izatso?

    Oh yes, Limited, you may be sure in your last sentence, that is quite the case. Blinkered, or peripherally retarded, some cannot reach that last ridgeline to their own masculinity. Or will not.

  3. Hamis Hill

    The cooments quoted as exaples of the diminution of women look susupiciouslsy like they came from women’s magagzines written by women and for women (until a similar survey proves otherwise).
    So as it might be mens problems to solve the problems for women caused by men so might the problems caused by women for women in womens magazines have to be solved by women.
    Certainly men are less than happy with the mind-numbing, man-free “Mommy-world” crap served up for their wives and daughters in some of the articles.
    As in the only role for women is motherhood and the home where, as they say in the oriental adage, the roof is not half held up by men but rather that men are excluded.
    Men who value their wives hate this theft of their partners and the damage it does to the family.
    Now whose court is this ball in now?

  4. Aphra

    ‘Thus, reporters of both genders unwittingly perpetuate “the way things work”.

    This is true and with one or two exceptions I was shocked by the female journalists who refused to acknowledge the PM’s speech for the major statement it was. I found their partisanship objectionable and their harping on the ‘gubby’ apects whilst ignoring the importance of the PM’s words, biased. Then, for the main, they proceeded to tell everyone, readers and politicians alike, what to think and how to act and respond. Presumptuous! Insufferable!

    There was little that I could do except cancel our last remaining newspaper subscription. They won’t care, of course, but it made me feel better. Gone are the days of disinterested analysis, more’s the pity, and Crikey is the last hope of the side now so far as I’m concerned.

  5. A K Osmand

    I like this quote, it sums up Crikey and most of it’s readers perfectly

    Perhaps there are none more lazy, or more truly ignorant, than your everlasting readers.

  6. Tom Jones

    The media is certainly part of the problem. A friend and I were talking this morning about the media reaction to the social media rejection of the meme that the PM supported Peter Slipper in her speech last week; which was the almost universal decision of the male media.
    To those of us outside Canberra it was clear that the male media were dismissive and patronising of her charges, which to my knowledge have never been made by a PM before, – that women are constantly being expected to put up with underlying sexism. None were prepared to even look at the issue of sexism and Tony Abbott.

    Most women have their own stories of sexism they have experienced and look with a somewhat jaundiced eye at the confected male outrage about Peter Slipper in a country where pornography is so ubiquitous it goes unremarked by male politicians who frequent the pornography capital Canberra.

    The lack of diversity in the media is one reason that newspapers are dying as women can’t be bothered with something that ignores their interest except for fashion puff pieces. What was amazing was the male media who were outraged that the social media rejected their interpretation of events. Get used to it boys.

  7. beachcomber

    Why the focus on the Front page? The Back pages are even worse. Women get a run if they win an Olympic medal, but that’s about the only time. And female sporting journalists are rare in the print media.

  8. David Heslin

    Hamis, I have no idea what you’re going on about in the penultimate paragraph, but good call on the quotations. I thought the same thing. The vast majority of men couldn’t give a damn about Julia Gillard’s new haircut; this is an article written by a woman, directed at women.
    That doesn’t mean that passages like these aren’t sexist and problematic, but it’s an uncomfortable irony when the author is using excerpts from by-women-for-women articles to make the case that there should be more content written, y’know, by women for women.

  9. Liz45

    @Hamis Hill – I rarely buy women’s magazines for the very reasons you have stated. I find the emphasis on body size, and getting back to your desired weight after having a baby etc mind numbing and depressing, when one considers all the helpful and positive articles that could be of benefit to these mothers – and fathers too of course. I don’t want to read that US bloke’s opinion on some well known women’s choice of outfit? It’s all so frivolous and flighty? And then there’s the price?

    I watched Q&A last night and thought Bill Shorten was rather selective in his opinions. Maybe he didn’t watch the speech? Maybe he too was out of the chamber like the two Independents? I thought his definition was OK though. He sort of broadened it out – ‘misogyny’ that is?

    I watched the speech live, and with tears in my eyes, gave Julia Gillard a standing ovation – alone, in my lounge room. I recorded it, and will keep it for ever! It was awesome! When I’ve read about the pornographic cartoons, the revolting placards; being told to ‘shut up’ by Abbott, and his cat calling across the table for two years, I applaud her patience. With all she’s had to put up with recently, he went too far! This man who’s thwarted progress for women in different areas, who belittles women with an unwanted pregnancy; or having to face the decision of their baby’s awful ‘condition’; who scoffs at us and depicts Australian women by the time they spend ironing???Honestly! I find it impossible to equate his demeanour with that of an alleged educated person? If he’s a Rhodes Scholar? I’m a female Einstein!

    As I’ve mentioned on another post. As a person who suffered violence over 20 yrs by my ex husband, I’m constantly confronted by the view that I should keep this to myself. That this ‘dirty laundry’ is somehow my creation; that I disgrace the family by speaking of my ‘intimate life’? How people equate intimacy and violence is beyond me, but there you go
    I remained silent for all the years I was married (for the sake of my kids – nowhere to go, no law person interested – police, even a chamber magistrate? Told me to ‘go home, be a good wife and cook his favourite meal’???

    While the stats re DV remain as high as they are, I’m not surprised only saddened, and yes very angry, by many of the comments made by journalists in Canberra (mostly male) and sadly too many women. Why do women have to put up with the kinds of behaviour that in other circumstances would be called ‘crimes’?

    The very fact that women have had to suck up and get on with it after they complain, still in 2012, shows me and others (I’m pleased to note – here!) that we still have a long way to go! There are lots of lovely men who are appalled by violence to anyone, and certainly not to those they profess to love. The mostly male journalists in msm do not reflect the principles of these men. It’s heartening to hear them speak out. I’d like to thank you all who do this!

    I now have a darling great grand daughter, as well as three lovely grand daughters, I want a better world for them. I want my three grandsons to know about positive relationships, and how violence never resolved any conflict, and is no substitute for adult discussion – particularly with those you love! And I want the shameful stats (one woman killed in this country every 7-10 days, by their abusive partner)to change.

    Before someone says that there’s no link between these issues, I disagree. Obviously, Abbott thought it OK to behave the way he did. Why? Because he got away with it for over 2 years? When Julia Gillard stood up and put a name to it, he and his supporters cried foul? Has he apologized? No he has not!

    Another thing that annoyed me last night, was, that nobody challenged Sophie Mirabella about her and Bronwyn Bishop standing beside Abbott, and among and in front of revolting placards! Why didn’t they ask for them to be put away? Why didn’t Abbott do the same thing? And how come Joe Hockey got away with his efforts of inciting violence? Even used the example of ‘taking up arms’? Why wasn’t he checked by those big brave men from msm? It’s all related, it’s all wrapped up with the view that it’s OK to treat women like this? Why? Because they believe that they are ‘owned’ by ‘their’ men? And that means, that they too can be abusive!

    IF Bronwyn Bishop and Julie Bishop (among others) have been targeted, why didn’t they support her? Because they want Abbott to win the next election and so that will enable either their aspirations of a portfolio, or at least, a higher income. And also, they believe that men are superior and have the right? That’s the only thing you can conclude!

    The NSW Govt is rumoured to cut monies for counselling kids who’ve been sexually abused? Can anyone justify that? Who will make the final decisions? MEN of course! What will be next? DV programs perhaps? Money for women’s refuges? Watch this space? All the while, they throw millions at clubs and sporting areas – mostly male dominated. V8 racing for example? NRL? The Sydney Cricket Ground, which will mainly provide new areas for members? Who are they? Mostly men!

    There was a great program in Victoria, state and federally funded for UNDER $300,000 per year, called B-Safe. This program gave women a special telephone that they could activate if their violent partner was ‘hovering’ or being abusive etc. The really good thing was, by calling a specific number, the conversations etc were being recorded and heard by the police etc. This meant, that the women and their kids could sleep at night; that kids stopped wetting the bed etc; that they felt safe for the first time in years. At the end of the inaugural period, finance was stopped? Both politicians in State and Federal Parlts, blamed the other, blah blah! The woman in the job of speaking with these families said, that the next death would be on their hands. I think that happened last week or so (could’ve been others in that State unknown to me)? A young woman killed by her husband and then set alight? Sure makes you wonder about priorities, doesn’t it? Maybe this wouldn’t have saved her life, but maybe it would! Shameful!

    @Aphra – I didn’t read the papers on the following day/s – just the weekend, and I was disgusted with the response – and very sad. Progress? Not bloody likely!

  10. Freeman

    As a male journalist, I find there are some disquieting assumptions and generalisations in Margaret Simon’s article.
    I have had as many female editors and male editors in my time as a professional journalist (four years at a major daily and 15 years freelancing for dailies and national mags). There are some sections of the print media – notably magazine and feature liftouts – that can be more dominated by female editors and also feature more articles about female subjects, artists and achievers than men.
    News is arguably another kettle of sharks. News conventions still follow patriarchal notions of power, contest and rules of battle but news conventions are stuck on many more conventions than gender. one of those is to primarily report people who are already in power, which of course, slows down change.
    There are frequent articles in the media, like Margaret Simons’ article, decrying the under representation of women. I would argue interesting people are under represented. There are also shockingly few articles written about gender politics by men and this I would argue is a kind of sexism in the media. Just as men can also cop chauvinism or subtle marginalisation in workplaces from women.
    There is a kind of reverse sexism that presumes the problem is male in origin and the solution is more power to women. At least some of those in the media who make comments about Ms Gillard’s appearance are women. I don’t wish to deny there is overt and latent sexism towards women still in workplaces, but inherited patriarchal conventions, along with workplace limitations, gangs and cliques, affect both genders.

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