Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Why is British public life dominated by men?

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?

I don't know when the breaking point came. Was it the 2010 election, in which the most prominent women on the national stage seemed to be the leaders' wives? Was it a drip, drip, drip of Question Time panels featuring one woman alongside four men and a male presenter? Could it have been the low growl of voices waking me each morning on the Today programme, or a growing feeling that I hadn't seen a female byline on the cover of some newspaper sections for weeks? Was it images of the Commons? Images of the Lords? Was it the prime-time television comedy shows with their all-male panels? Or the current affairs shows, also apparently aimed at a mixed audience, that barely featured women?
It was all those factors, in truth, and so in mid-June I began a count. I started with bylines (the name of the journalist who has written the article). For four weeks I counted every byline in the Monday-to-Friday editions of seven newspapers, looking at the number of male and female writers. I knew there were only two female editors of national newspapers: Tina Weaver at the Sunday Mirror, and Dawn Neesom at the Daily Star. But I wanted a clearer picture overall.
I did the count for the first two weeks, a colleague did the third, and two researchers the fourth. We doggedly counted each byline, in every part of each paper, and while this wasn't a scientific study, each individual week brought forth broadly similar figures (the count was timed to end before the start of the school summer holidays, to avoid any skewing of the statistics). There wasn't a single day, on a single newspaper, when the number of female bylines outstripped or equalled the number of male bylines. The Daily Mail came the closest of any newspaper to parity on Monday 27 June, when its contributors were 53% male and 47% female – reflecting the fact that, whatever the Daily Mail's style and tone, it clearly recognises the commercial importance of its women readers, targets a mass of material at them, and is rewarded as the only daily national, besides the Daily Express, whose female readers currently outnumber male readers.
At the end of the month we averaged all the daily percentages and the results were: the Mail, 68% male bylines, 32% female; the Guardian, 72% male, 28% female; the Times, 74% male, 26% female; the Daily Telegraph, 78% male, 22% female; the Daily Mirror, 79% male, 21% female; the Sun, 80% male, 20% female; and the Independent, 84% male, 16% female. (A new editor was appointed at the Independent during the count, so we had another look at the paper's bylines on the week beginning Monday 14 November, to see if there was any change. Although the paper has some excellent female columnists and writers, the figures were exactly the same.)
It is arguable, of course, that counting bylines is a blunt tool – that an analysis of how many words by male and female writers are appearing in the newspapers would be far better. If someone intends to do that analysis, I would love to read it. However, having leafed through many news, sports and arts sections with a very small proportion of female writers, I'm not sure the result would be all that different. I should also note there were sometimes a few names that weren't easy to pin down as male or female, however much we searched for details, (I'm speaking, primarily, of people called Chris), and these were left out of the count. Their number never exceeded five on a single newspaper on a single day, and that was anomalous – mostly there were fewer than 15 unclear bylines across all the newspapers over the space of a week, out of more than 3,500 bylines in total. So while they might have added a blur to our snapshot, it was of a very mild variety.
During that four-week period, I also logged the gender of reporters and guests on the Today programme. (All the shows I looked at, including Today, were on the BBC, which reflects the agenda-setting nature of the corporation.) It is well-recognised that the main roster of Today programme presenters is male-dominated – John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Evan Davis and Justin Webb, with Sarah Montague the only woman. But I wondered whether this 80/20 split spilled over to its other contributors.
Using the breakdown of each morning's programme, published on the BBC website, and discounting the lead presenters, I added up the number of reporters and guests who appeared on each episode – counting each reporter only once if they were, for instance, appearing repeatedly on a single show to relay the business or sports news. On Tuesday 5 July you had to wait from 6.15am until 8.20am to hear the one female contributor who appeared alongside the 27 male contributors on the programme: arts correspondent Rebecca Jones talking about the Hampton Court Palace flower show. Overall, across the month, discounting the main presenters, Today had 83.5% male contributors and 16.5% female ones.
I spoke to the editor of the Today programme, Ceri Thomas, on Friday 11 November – a day when only two female contributors appeared on the programme. The day before there had been just one. I asked if there was a strong enough female presence on the show at the moment. "I think nearly every day there is not," he said. "And within the programme it's a very active discussion. And not just a discussion – it's pursued actively, too. Every producer on the programme is aware we're trying to increase the representation of women on air. People such as the planning editor, who is in a position to do a bit more about it, have it as a specific objective." He adds that the show's listenership is about 50/50 men and women, "and I'm bound to say to you, it almost never comes up as an issue from the audience ... I suppose it might be two letters a year, or something of that nature." He makes this last point, in different words, three times in our 10-minute conversation.

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