Monday, 8 March 2010

Making a Mark: Women, the Media and Politics

What? IWA conference addressing questions of how fairly women are treated by the media

Where? St Peter's Church Hall, Cardiff

International Women's Day has long celebrated the role of women in society and how it has changed.

As part of this festival of the female the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) decided to bring a host of Wales' most influential women together to openly debate the role of women in the media and politics.

I W A feature by bribriwilliams

Beti George, BBC TV and Radio presenter opened the show with tales of her early work as a reporter.

Collecting vox pops on “vital issues such as, how do you stop your sleeping partner from snoring?”

There was laughter but this introduction set the debate on the role of women in the media. Either working in it or how they are depicted in it.

The conference had an impressive list of speakers ranging from University Professors, Industry Experts to Politicians.

The discussion on women in politics began with Dr Paul Chaney, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, and Professor Laura McAllister, School of Management, University of Liverpool. Laura has recently been appointed Chair of the Sports Council for Wales.

Some shocking statistics were revealed. In Wales only one quarter of local councillors are women. Laura believes that the media should help “construct new definitions of what a good politician is” as most of the time women are judged on their appearance and age. It is not embedded into our democracy to have gender balance in politics. Paul Chaney spoke of the importance of females in policy and law making. He showed us tables and graphs that displayed that women are more likely to raise issues about policies that they believed in and drive debates.

Up next to discuss Women in Welsh Media were Dr Cynthia Carter, Cardiff School of Journalism and Elin Wyn, Media Consultant.

They pointed out that women are outnumbered two to one on television by men. In recent media job cuts women are being hit harder than men are. Because of the constant need for content, many media employees end up doing the work of numerous people because of the cuts in media funding.

Elin highlighted the fact that working the media industry is unpredictable. As a news reporter you could be following any story which may take you anywhere in the country. Fitting that around a 9-5 timetable isn’t possible. Women find it harder than men to put off having a ‘media shelf-life’. There is a gap in representation in women over 35 in the media because it is thought that once you take a break to have children you never get back in. It was an important issue to raise. What was evident is the amount of support that women can offer each other. Maybe more could be done to put women in contact with others that have already been through the demanding work life that they are about to go into.

The topic then moved onto how women are never called upon as experts in the media. It always seems to be male professionals that are quoted rather than females. A better relationship was called for between journalists and non journalists. It’s not just about making yourself known to a journalist but being proactive and listening out for topics of discussion where you may be the right person to talk to about it.

Often regarding science based subjects women are always expected to turn something dull into an alluring fact.

“Women are expected to make science sexy and accessible.”

Professor Jenny Kitzinger, Cardiff School of Journalism, has found in her research that 5 males get quoted for every 1 female scientist in the media. She drew our attention to the fact that when male scientists are described they are portrayed as “stereotypical geeks” the young whizz kid and the eccentric professor. But often women in science get measured against ideals of femininity and enthusiasm is interpreted as “girlish flirtation”. It is tough to find the right balance of being a good speaker or someone that can be used by the media industry and acquiring the respect of the media and the audience. Being an expert who can explain jargon but without being to ‘down with the kids’. Maybe this all comes down to confidence and the way we perceive ourselves. If we looked at ourselves differently then maybe we could somehow shape the way people view us.

Well this certainly was the theory of the next guest at the IWA conference. Women Making a Difference was the title of the workshop lead by Kate Thomas. At first I thought it was quite odd that we were told we had to write down ‘things we liked about ourselves’ and the things we ‘most value’ about our character. But there was method in the madness. Kate’s presentation was based on an idea that by focusing on the positive aspects of our personality we can change certain characteristics about ourselves. To demonstrate this we all had a balloon we had to blow up steadily every time we told a different person something we liked about ourselves.

The balloon represented our “core beliefs”. If the life we live is centred around positive core beliefs then we are more likely to be confident and happy with ourselves. Kate gave us statements to finish writing, as well as questions to answer. My favourite statement was:

“I may not be perfect, but I’m proud of myself because…”

The media presents so many ideal women who are seen to be perfect and can do everything but of course this just isn’t the case. But this doesn’t mean the pressure to be perfect goes away. But this statement really struck a chord as we all have elements of our lives we can be proud of and it’s these moments we should be focusing on rather than the negative elements. Remembering the things we’ve done, not the things we haven’t.

And next to speak were women that have definitely made their mark in society.

Julie Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiff North, Kirsty Williams, Liberal Democrat AM for Brecon and Radnor, Karen Robson, Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Cardiff Central and Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru AM for South Wales Central. All began by giving an introduction of their route in to politics and the way they are represented in the media.

I found it highly amusing that Julie Morgan often referred to Westminster as “the old boys club”. They all spoke of how they found it hard to be quoted about the policies that they are backing. Kirsty remarked on how the media in Wales always pick up on the clothes she’s wearing rather than the campaigns she creates. One newspaper described her as being “dressed as an air hostess”. Surely the newspapers should be writing about her political views rather than her dress code.

Leanne suggested that the bad press they receive as female politicians was “chiefly about attitudes of the gender roles in society.” Even though we live in a modern society that has reached gender equality we still cannot shake off the stereotypes of yesteryear that dictate how women are perceived.

Karen mentioned that she held a workshop for young people and how to become involved in politics. She described how one girl had told her she was put off by politics because of “the way women are portrayed.” It becomes slightly scary that our nation could be losing a whole generation of intelligent, charismatic politicians because of how the media depict the present ones. Karen also set the notion that women “aren’t always as supportive as we could be…as a sisterhood we need to step back.” This remark somewhat typifies what the IWA set out to achieve with this conference.

The audience was filled with strong women. If we all pull together and help each other, then we can only improve. It was a great feeling to be amongst pro active women who cared about their role in society. The event brought together like minded females who can unite and grow. Kirsty Williams emphasised that if you weren’t willing to fight for something, who will?

The penultimate chapter of the conference was handed over to working journalists. Led by Lynne Walsh and joining her were Martin Shipton, Western Mail,Betsan Powys, BBC Wales Political Editor, Martin Moore, Director, Media Standards Trust.

A lot of the talk was about the future of journalism. 24hour news maybe have resulted in the decline of article accuracy as journalists now have to produce more content than ever before. The time constraints mean that journalists don’t have as much time to source new contacts and check that they are suitable for broadcast. But Betsan Powys made it clear that experts were picked not because they were male or female but because they were the best for the news story.

Martin Shipton addressed the issue that there always has to be a balance of what is published in newspapers and what sells them. Advertising and marketing revenue has fallen so newspapers are coping with less staff but still have to produce a profitable product.

So what’s the way forward?

As the conference drew to a close the last discussion was about what the future will hold for women, politics and the media and whether we can shape it.

The general feeling was that whatever the path is women have to walk it together. The media industry recognising that they can change they way in which women are represented, politicians understating what journalists need and more support amongst female professional. All of these are advantageous suggestions to how women can build a better future for generations to come.

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