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.

Peter Fray

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