Thursday, 8 December 2011

Is British public life dominated by men?

Today in the Guardian, features writer Kira Cochrane has produced a story that is already being widely quoted on the numbers (or lack thereof) of visible women in the media. "In a typical month, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today show are men. Where are all the women?"

On the one hand, this story is decently written and based on a sound idea. Not least because rather than write an article on lazy assumptions of representations, it goes to the bother of looking at whether the actual numbers match up with the perceptions of the author. This is a good place to start in any conversation about representation and is often overlooked in media or social commentary.

That said, there is a huge difference between "counting numbers" and "producing statistics". Or, indeed, evidence. My problem is not with the article per se, which after all is simply a feature for the Life & Style section of the Grauniad, but rather with the reception it's had on Twitter and elsewhere as if it is le dernier cri in proof. The article is an improvement on most other articles of its kind. But it is also at best a beginning of something that could, and should, be examined further in a way which is compatible with well-designed research.

But the widespread acclaim indicates there is a danger of not taking the piece any further, and adopting its conclusions wholesale as if it was a well-designed in-depth study. It's not (yet). It could be. For example, the article starts with "In a typical month" - to be unimpeachable, you must establish in what way the months selected were "typical".

Because the numbers match so closely with the author's a priori assumptions, care should be taken to assure the reader that the shows selected do not comprise a skewed sample. (Actually, this should be done anyway.) We need to know what the spread of shows on television and radio are that are considered topical, political, or sufficiently serious. Why was Question Time included, and Loose Women excluded? I don't think one is especially more in-depth or topical than the other. Why is Have I Got News For You considered, which is a comedy show, and Moral Maze not, which is a serious radio programme featuring many regular women panellists and guests? Or the Radio 4 News Quiz, hosted by Sandi Toksvig and featuring many women as guests? What about Women's Hour?

Size, as ever, matters. What are the audience sizes for the shows, since clearly that is important? So, too, does sampling. Since it's presumably not practical or useful to count all appearances on all media, there needs to be a way of assuring that the ones considered in such a study comprise a representative sample of media, audience types, and audience sizes. This is something almost no examination of media topics outside academia bother to do (and many inside don't do it either). But if the shows can not be shown to be representative, the stud's conclusions could be accused of being skewed, and the results not taken seriously.

The title of the article, with its unexplored "why?" also presents the danger of interpreting an outcome as if it is the same as the opportunity. Why, indeed, should there be more women on Question Time, when the percentage of female MPs is only 22%? This surely this is a problem that needs to be addressed at root level (why are there not more women in government, considered for such positions, or running for them?) and not by whingeing about token women on politics shows.

The reaction to women going on some of these shows can be extremely negative, which makes other women considering whether to appear think twice. Remember when Fern Britton appeared on Question Time, and the furore over her opening her mouth on topics other than what we thought she should talk about? I was asked to go on QT last year and turned it down because I expected much the same reaction. Would a similarly placed man in media have had the same dismissive reception as Britton, particularly from women like Amanda Platell perceiving them as "lightweight"?

Similarly, the format of the Today programme on Radio 4 is extremely off-putting. Would you like to be shouted at for two minutes first thing in the morning on a show that prides itself on manufacturing controversy, or have a reasonable discussion over on Women's Hour? That, incidentally, is the question more-or-less as it has been put to me by the PR folks at Orion in the past. Come on, it's not even a contest which most women (and men) would choose given the option.

Age is also part of the mix. As one twitter correspondent (@petehague) commented, "I think that the entire debate misses the point that experienced commentators represent past gender policies ... i.e. if you want to get a professor of economics on TV, your selection is influenced by undergraduate gender balance decades ago." And not only the undergrad balance, but especially the percentage making it through study to professorships. David Starkey and his ilk are still rocking up peddling their schtick because, well, the women with the best and most cogent arguments to counter him are not at his level of academic or media experience yet. This phenomenon is almost certainly at work outside the academia bubble as well. And given the continuation of the trend in which women for various reasons choose family or life balance over single-minded pursuit of their careers, it may well never happen.

Finally, we must ask why it is women in media, even ones like say, Laurie Penny, who seem committed to an ideal of being a political writer, end up doing pieces about dating and handbags. Is it because when such assignments are offered, writers would rather take the job than turn it down? And does this, over time, contribute to an impression that anyone who has done so is destined to "lack gravitas"? There is a pink ghetto even - no, especially - at the Guardian. Isn't it ironic that Cochrane's piece is in the Life & Style section, rather than, say, Comment Is Free? On the same day when a man's thoughts on his Movember 'tache does get a spot in CiF?

So in short, while I broadly agree with Cochrane's thesis that it would be nice to see more women on shows like Question Time and Have I Got News For You, I'm not sure the critical applause is warranted. Yet. And I don't think it constitutes "proof" much at all apart from being about those shows on those days. Interesting? Yes. Generalisable to all media at all times? No. The difference between anecdotes and sampling is subtle (perhaps too much so for most media) but crucial.

You may be wondering why this matters on an issue in which most people are in agreement. It matters because if an argument is seen to be slapdash or half-baked, it throws the conclusions into doubt regardless of how worthy they are. It matters because for there to be change it's important to know the real and not imagined extent of the problem. And it matters because if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. There's a germ of an interesting idea in there. The real question is what is to be done with it?