Belfast Telegraph

Why gender quota for media pundits is not a good idea

By Fionola Meredith

Women: there simply aren't enough of them. There's a definite lack of female voices on news and current affairs programmes, and a particular dearth of women experts and commentators. It's a problem.

A recent report by the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI), funded by the State broadcasting authority, showed a remarkable imbalance. Of all contributors asked for their opinion, 78% of time given to 'experts' was occupied by men on RTE Radio 1, and a whopping 85% on the commercial radio station Newstalk. That's a heck of a lot of yakking blokes.

And it's not just an Irish thing, either. Across the UK male experts outnumber female experts by four to one on radio and television news programmes, a figure that has stayed static for years. Even the fusty old House of Lords has noticed and declared that it's not good enough, calling on broadcasters, Ofcom and the Government to do something about it.

But what to do? Well, on this side of the Irish Sea the NWCI report says it's time to get tough. It wants quotas imposed on radio stations for women contributors (minimum 40%), observing, cannily, that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland "has the capacity to compel stations to meet minimum targets, if these targets are linked to the licensing process". In other words if the stations don't deliver on women, get them off the air. The report also wants to visibly name-and-shame the miscreants who do not show signs of complying.

Tough talk indeed. That'll sort the men from the boys. Or rather the girls. But it's a bad idea all the same. Women should be on these shows because they have something useful or informative or challenging to say, not because they happen to own a uterus.

There's clearly a serious issue with the idea of female authority. This is the true difficulty, and it isn't limited to the media. In the culture at large women are rarely regarded as sources of knowledge, people who are active and articulate in the public realm, in the same way as their male counterparts.

Authority appears to accrue naturally to men, especially those of a certain age and self-satisfied demeanour. Ponderous jowls are optional, as are half-moon spectacles, but both are useful props in the armoury of the Man-Who-Knows.

Women, on the other hand, are far more likely to be represented as bystanders or victims or celebrities. Not respected figures capable of providing insight, analysis and informed debate.

So, to force the situation in the form of mandatory quotas, undermines that (lack of) authority still further. It implies that the ladies aren't up to the job and require special measures. This is the precise opposite of what we need.

As a broadcaster myself, I can't complain. I'm happy to speak on a wide range of topics, and I frequently do. But I'd like to see more women tackling the big, meaty bones - politics, economics, ethics, hard social issues - rather than the mimsy cutlets of showbiz, fashion and lifestyle micro-dramas. And I'd like to see more men asked about parenting or childcare or school uniforms. That's one of the ways that TV and radio bosses can begin to shift the ingrained gender dynamic without resorting to the fake inclusivity of positive discrimination.

However, it's simplistic and plain wrong to say that this is all down to basic male bias. In my experience producers (of both sexes) often try to get more women on to their programmes but are frequently thwarted by point-blank refusal.

Too many women think they're not smart enough or not sharp enough to go on air. They require a lot of persuasion and encouragement to even consider the possibility. Blokes do not appear to be held back by such a lack of confidence or by self-doubt or by fears of seeming pushy and arrogant. Quite the reverse, it seems.

The broadcaster Mary Beard points out that "when as listeners we hear a female voice, we don't hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather we haven't learned how to hear authority in them". She contrasts the words regularly used about the way that women speak - shrill, strident, whining, whingeing - with the profundity ascribed to the deep-voiced man.

Quotas or not, nothing will really change until society as a whole learns to hear the authority in women's voices - and that includes women themselves. In the meantime perhaps female pundits should learn from their posturing male peers and fake it till they make it. Jowls, of course, are optional.

Belfast Telegraph


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