Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

If women want to be heard they need to speak up a bit

Man’s world: Question Time from Belfast with Margaret Ritchie as the panel’s only woman

Sometimes I feel like giving up being a feminist. For a start, if you mention the ‘F’ word, people automatically assume that you're a flint-hearted harpy, whose deepest desire is to crush all men beneath your feet.

Others automatically think that you're a shrivelled old prude who wants to stop everyone else from having fun. And then there's the feminists themselves.

Don't get me wrong: I've met some fabulous feminists over the years; truly inspirational women who have fired me up with a passion for radical thought and action. I owe them a great deal.

But others I've had the misfortune to come across seem to reinforce the stereotype of dour whingers or envious back-stabbers. Sorry, sisters.

I must admit my heart sinks when I see another report bewailing the lack of women in politics or public life.

On Monday, the Guardian published a survey which showed how few women writers, columnists and contributors there are in the UK media.

I knew I should take my medicine and read it: after all, I still support the drive to make more women's voices heard in the media, as well as more widely in public life.

But my appetite for action is drained when the same old earnest phrases crop up about “the marginalisation of women”, or “the masculine establishment”.

I've heard it |all so many times before and it seems that nothing short of a revolution will change it.

So I glanced at the political cartoons and did the crossword before, with a weary sigh, I turned back to the Guardian's survey.

It found that, in a typical month, 78% of the UK's newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of BBC’s Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on the Radio 4 Today show are men.

It's a similar pattern in political life: just think 22%. That's the percentage of female MPs, peers and members of the Cabinet.

And it's even worse here: only 18.5% of Stormont Assembly members are women, the lowest out of any of the UK's four legislatures. No joy in the Dail, either, with female representatives making up just more than 15% of Dublin’s lower house.

Whose fault is this? Institutional sexism is the approved feminist answer and it's partly true. It doesn't have to be overt, conscious, or deliberate (though sometimes it is); it's as much a matter of things being done the way they always have been done, and an unexamined tendency to view men as the natural inheritors of power and authority, as it is about keeping women out.

But I think there's another answer; one less palatable to feminist campaigners.

It is that women themselves must take more responsibility for their relative absence from political seats, or panel discussions.

Too often, they fail to put themselves forward, or refuse when they are asked.

I first came across this when I worked for Women into Politics, a Belfast-based training organisation. In the consciousness-|raising classes I taught, I found that too many capable, competent women were putting themselves down, holding back, diminishing the importance of what they had to say.

Years after I had left the organisation, I saw a television report on a campaign for more female participation at Stormont. There the women stood, with their forthright slogans and banners.

But no one wanted to come forward and speak for the group. They muttered among themselves, each one too shy to take a stand.

It was absurd and vaguely embarrassing, a whisper rather than a shout for women's rights. This unfortunate lack of self-belief is not unique to women in Northern Ireland. Katie Snape, who books guests for Sky News, says that, in spite of her best efforts, she often has difficulty getting women to appear on screen.

She said: “I always have these conversations with women where I say, ‘We'd love to have you on the panel' and they laugh and say, ‘Gosh, I'm so flattered, but I just don't think I'd have anything to say.’ And I've never rung up a man who has said that.”

And therein lies the truth. Whether in the bar, on the sports field, or in the debating chamber, men rarely let modesty hold them back. Benefiting from millennia of inherited power, their eyes are firmly on the prize and they'll keep going until they get it.

So, if women really want to have a say, they must man up and find their voices.

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