Your Country Needs You

Your vote doesn't just matter. It's critical


In the run-up to the general election, ELLE feared women’s voices weren’t being heard in the media. So we commissioned academic, writer and feminist Zoe Strimpel to investigate by monitoring how women fared on all the flagship news programmes for a week. What we found should drive you all to action…

You’d think that, in 2015, news broadcasts on the most popular channels in the country featuring almost 200% more men than women would be a bad joke, right? Wrong. Ditto the fact that 90% of all politics is discussed by men on such programmes. Much like the gender pay gap, the absence of women on screen is a glaring anomaly – made all the more stark by the fact that, of the 64.1 million people in the UK, just over half are women. A staggering 78% of women over 18 watch TV news, versus 73% of men, according to communications regulator Ofcom, while around a third of Britons regularly watch or listen to the flagship programmes (BBC News At Ten, ITV News At Ten and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme).


Day in, day out, politics, world affairs and economics are discussed and watched by millions of women. Yet, when I was commissioned by ELLE to watch and listen to the most popular news programmes for five consecutive week days, only around one in three people who appeared in the news was female. We were a minority, marginalised as experts, correspondents, news-makers – anything considered ‘serious’, really. Is it really a surprise, then, that 9.1 million women didn’t vote in the last general election? Perhaps many of us figure, ‘what’s the point?’  


As a feminist and a journalist, ELLE tasked me with monitoring and interpreting women’s role in the news: counting, analysing and, yes, judging broadcasters’ gender choices. I listened to and watched BBC Radio 4’s Today, Channel 4 News, BBC News At Ten, ITV News At Ten, Newsnight and Question Time, noting what kinds of roles on-air women held (presenter, expert, correspondent, politician, victim or vox pop). It was an intense and immersive week, for which I had to cancel all plans and rush home hours earlier than usual. My boyfriend and I shared the cooking of dinner, squeezing in food before the next round of viewings. Usually, I organise my news intake via other curators: websites and blogs (The Telegraph, Sky News, The New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Slate and Jezebel), Twitter and Facebook, hand-picking the stories I’m interested in, many of which are written by women and concern gender. So the week of watching promised to be a double shock: yes, I had to be at home every night, but I was also being exposed to what millions of other Britons consume daily – uncurated, ‘official’ news. What would I find? Were women’s voices being heard? Should we feel optimistic about how we’re being portrayed?

In theory, the answer should be yes. Women are an important political bloc with the power to swing the vote. Tony Blair knew this well, securing a landslide victory in 1997, in which 80.1% of women turned out to vote (versus 76.9% of men). 

But, as stated earlier, recent research from the House of Commons Library showed that, in the 2010 general election, nine million of us abstained from voting (compared to eight million men). More dispiriting still is that, between 1992 and 2010, the number of female voters in general elections fell by 18%. We’re barely on the news, or making it – so if we don’t vote either, we have neither political nor public representation. 


If there are fewer women in positions of power in general, the news makes it look even worse. For instance, while 22.8% of MPs are women (148 out of 650), only one in 10 people discussing politics on the news is. Just when women can and are doing more than ever before – leading states, multinationals and medical research teams – on-screen, they appear to be doing little more than wringing their hands over childcare costs and the price of groceries, or being victimised by violent men. Expertise? Setting the news agenda? Scientific breakthroughs? Overwhelmingly, according to the news, these are not women’s achievements. That we are doing these things, regardless of the news, is not enough. We need public recognition, which is what sets things down in history; what makes them official, and lets future generations know what we did. (Can you imagine for a second men going without recognition? I can’t: just remember scientist Rosalind Franklin’s horrendous treatment by Watson and Crick, who famously denied her due credit in discovering DNA while grabbing the limelight for themselves.)


Germany, arguably the most powerful country in Europe, has a female Chancellor. Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Malta, Croatia and Lithuania all have female heads of state. So where are they? In the week we watched and listened, central and eastern Europe were right at the centre of the action. But none of these women featured (apart from a short clip of the speech made by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt after shootings in Copenhagen). Meanwhile, the airtime given over to the suits in Brussels in a flap over the Greek bailout was almost endless – and the Y-chromosome white-out continued in discussions of Ukraine, where men drove tanks, shot at other men, cheered and commanded.


That’s not the broadcasters’ fault. But almost all correspondents reporting on Ukraine in the week I watched were men. Just one woman, Eleanor Garnier, contributed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Yet there are many female war correspondents, from Lyse Doucet at the BBC to Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4, as well as less well-known examples. Sarah Lain from Rusi, the security think tank, was invited in for comment and analysis on Russia and Ukraine on Channel 4 News, but female expertise on the war barely went further. 

Greece was another unremittingly male event. The Greek story itself is largely male, thanks to the gender make-up of the Syriza party and its Brussels and German handlers. But are men the only capable analysts? According to the news, almost – though not quite entirely. On two instances, Newsnight – both nights presented by Kirsty Wark – had a woman on to debate Greece: female financial journalist Frances Coppola and one of Syriza’s London-based spokespersons, Marina Prentoulis. Today featured Dr Helen Joyce from The Economist talking about a possible return to the drachma currency. These contributions were a ray of hope; they pointed – with bells on – to a number of experienced female commentators on topics that tend to be male dominated. 

But overwhelmingly, watching the news as a gender-aware outsider can feel like being in a cage, cornered on all sides by bars of patriarchy. With everything from parliamentary debates to the Oscars, I am used to cringing at how brazen the under-representation of women in positions of power is. This week of news monitoring was like that, only worse. There were times when I yelled at the TV, denouncing male economics/medical/eurozone/business/political/technical experts appearing one after another, then yelled at my boyfriend to come and see how ridiculous it was (he agreed, admitting he’d never noticed before). 


Often my rage led to Twitter. On the first two episodes of Newsnight that I watched, the representation of women was so boldly rubbish that I couldn’t hold back. I got return tweets from Newsnight deputy editor Neil Breakwell (who pointed to one single female clip by way of self-defence), and Jess Brammar, a producer, who said I was being unfair – while also admitting, ‘it’s grim tonight in that respect’. On one of these nights (with topics including, among others, Greece, the UK fostering crisis and Richard Dawkins), the sole woman who appeared – not as a mourner, an onlooker or a terrified Jewish person holding a baby – was Inna Shevchenko, a feminist and free-speech activist, who was a strong presence. (There was another woman: the unconscious patient of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, the star of an extended feature on the NHS.) Meanwhile, over on BBC News At Ten, there was a classic positioning of female expertise after a strongly male-dominated show – a female art gallerist and her friend, interviewed for a story on a statue of an Egyptian cat being found in Cornwall. Thanks for that, guys.

My findings broadly supported those of Professor Lis Howell, director of broadcasting at City University and long-term researcher into gender inequality across news broadcasting. Howell was also special adviser on a House of Lords inquiry into the role of women in the news. Her most recent batch of numbers, gathered between January and February 2014, reveal that the ratio of male to female experts was a sorry 4:1 overall, 6:1 in sport, and that shocking 10:1 in politics. 


Howell’s research shows Today to have improved the most out of all the monitored broadcasters since 2009. Yet, on the Tuesday I tuned in, just nine out of 30 segment presenters were women, while only 10 out of 40 interviewees or experts were women. This was a very good day, perhaps uncoincidentally produced by two women: Gilly Orr and Connie Pollard. On Thursday, the programme was produced by two men: Peter Snowdon and John Neal, and featured 16 different women, of whom three were connected with sex work, and three were unnamed vox pops. There were 50 men, by contrast, of whom just three were vox pops.


Women are often seen, even if they are not heard. In one story about a botched plastic surgery case in Thailand, in addition to showing the victim’s corpse being carted into a van, we saw female nurses on in-line skates in a hospital busily delivering files – the surgeons were, of course, men. A woman did speak in this story, but she was a subject, only wheeled out to discuss her surgery. 

But when I ran these impressions and some of the figures past two of the top women in broadcast news, they saw things differently. Both Mary Hockaday, BBC controller of World Service English and formerly head of the BBC Multimedia Newsroom and editor of BBC World Service and Current Affairs, and Rachel Corp, head of Home News for ITV, refute the idea that broadcast sexism is a particular problem. Hockaday notes: ‘I feel very proud to have been doing the jobs that I do. There are many brilliant successful women in BBC news. I worked hard to get where I am and have not felt that being a woman held me back.’ Corp told me: ‘I don’t think there’s anything inherently sexist in television news. I don’t think there is an unconscious gender bias that dictates the way we go.’

Neither denies statistics that show far fewer female correspondents than men and fewer women in top positions across the board, but they insist this is a reflection of society in general, not sexist culture at broadcast stations. In Corp’s words: ‘Television news is a window on to society – too much of society full stop is dominated by men.’ But both admit there is more work to be done and say they are committed to fostering gender equality and diversity both on-screen and behind the scenes.

Hockaday adds that monitoring just a week of news can’t give a full picture. And when she spelled out top women at the BBC, it did all sound far rosier. Along with the aforementioned Wark and Doucet, other big names include Orla Guerin, Sarah Montague, Mishal Husain, Martha Kearney, Shaimaa Khalil and Tulip Mazumdar. She urges caution on talking of the ‘dearth of women’, which, she says, can mean we are ‘not respectful of the great women doing the job; it’s like we’re not recognising them’.

Corp, meanwhile, pointed to the fact that the ITV newsroom staff is actually closer to 51% women. Importantly, she adds, having more women in the newsroom has meant that issues like female genital mutilation (FGM) have gained prominence, rather than being sidelined as taboo or awkward, as they were just a few years ago. 


This is all important and good. But Hockaday’s insistence that a snapshot is only a snapshot hides a bigger truth – that there shouldn’t even be snapshots that reveal such wild gender imbalance. There are no snapshots in which men barely appear as figures of authority. As for the experts and guests that – on the days we tuned in – were so overwhelmingly male, a familiar argument was deployed: if you need a minister, or a hospital head, you can’t help it if he’s a man. But with plenty of women in important positions, this argument just isn’t good enough. It simply isn’t the case that there aren’t a multitude of women capable of speaking intelligently and authoritatively about everything – I can think of a dozen off the top of my head, from Ann Copestake, the deputy head of computer science at the University of Cambridge, to Kathleen Brooks, one of London’s top foreign exchange experts. Or me, for that matter. And quite possibly you. If broadcasters are as committed to gender equality as they say, it’s their job to find women who can talk about government economic policy and everything else besides. 

Getting women on air, in positions of authority, is the only way to permanently change the culture and give both viewers and women starting out in politics or the news the role models they need. The women’s leadership catchphrase ‘we can’t be what we can’t see’ is spot on. So there should be tougher measures; anything less and people will wriggle out of it. Affirmative action? Quotas? Accountable bosses? Tick, tick, tick.  

Howell agrees, rejecting the ‘but the top ministers are men’ arguments: ‘There are 10 times as many men interviewed in UK politics than women. It is a choice by broadcasters to interview men.’ Even the issue of reporters struck me as a matter of gendered hierarchy: I saw more women ‘reporters’ than men ‘reporters’ – the week I watched, men were almost always ‘correspondents’ (and as correspondents, still far outnumbered even the women reporters). The oft-used childcare argument won’t wash with Howell, either. ‘If you look at all the women in Britain, only a third have children under 16, which means two-thirds of women are available because they do not have childcare duties. This means the ratio of men to women on screen should be 2:1.’

The problem, she says, is that women ‘use the same excuses as men; everyone’s bought into the same story’. That story is one of workplace culture and expectations geared towards male power and authority. ‘There’s a deep-seated feeling that women shouldn’t be in control,’ says Howell.

So, after all the number-crunching, did I find an answer to my initial questions? Yes, I did – and the answer is no, women’s voices are not strong enough; no, we should not feel optimistic about how we’re seen and heard. But the issue is society-wide, and the only way we’re going to make a change begins with us. En masse, we can and must get our voices heard – and if an election isn’t a chance to do just that, nothing is.

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