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Where are all the women?

Michelle Stanistreet addresses the meeting

Michelle Stanistreet addresses the meeting  -  © Jess Hurd

21 March 2012

Where are all the Women? Sexism in the media: conference report and podcast

Wall-to-wall naked breasts on the newsagents' shelves, sexist banter from work colleagues, violent sexual-orientated abuse on blogs, physical attacks whilst reporting and broadcasting obsolescence at the age 45.

Welcome to the woman's-eye view of the media in 2012.

A packed NUJ fringe meeting of women journalists and trade unionists (and a few men) came together at the TUC Women's Conference to discuss: "Where are all the Women? Sexism in the Media Industry; Organising the Fightback." The meeting shared experiences, but also looked at how positive collective action could be used to combat sexism.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said women were still facing sex discrimination, harassment and lower pay. They are penalised for becoming pregnant, frozen out of promotions and edged off the TV screen.

She recalled sending proposed amendments to the EU Pregnant Workers Directive to the MEPs on the Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee. Her response from Godfrey Bloom, UKIP MEP for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, was:

"To be brutally honest Mrs Stanistreet, I have never read such dreadful nonsense in my life. You clearly have no idea how businesses work or recruitment policy in the private sector. I am simply far too busy to go through line by line and pick up on the flaws in your argument. I implore you to stick to giving advice on nappies and breastfeeding or whatever it is that brought your organisation into existence."

Where are all the women flyerJess Hurd is a freelance photographer who works at the sharp end of news, covering riots, demonstrations and recently the events in Tahrir Square in Egypt. As a woman, she is in small minority of news photographers working for the national press. Talking to her female colleagues, she discovered a familiar and depressing story.

She said:

"We all have to put up with the sexist banter; it's all about putting women in their place. Men sometimes physically block your shots; one woman had her equipment broken. What they are saying is don't mess about in our patch. One way to survive is to be extra tough and match the macho; but then you have go home to be mummy."

Women photographers (and their male colleagues) all know what their picture editor wants. That is why only blonde girls are pictured receiving their A-level results in the Daily Telegraph. Jess Hurd said:

"I know of one photographer who wanted a picture at a demo of an interesting placard, but then asked the girl holding it to pass it to a more attractive friend."

It isn't just the casual sexism; being a female photographer can make you a target. Jess was attacked when she was working in Tahrir Square. She said:

"My colleagues who saw me directly after the attack were supportive, but I've heard dismissive comments from other colleagues, such as 'she wasn't raped though', which really disappointed me."

Lynda Rooke is chair of Equity women's committee and is also known for her parts in Casualty, Silent Witness and Waking the Dead. Her latest role is Coronation Street's Elsie Tanner in the play, 'The Queen of the North'. She said:

"If you a female actress over 45, you just disappear. Behind the camera at the BBC there is a cross-section of society and women in powerful positions; but this is not being translated to more women on screen or radio."

For example, the number of male actors to females in Dr Who is 66:28; Spooks 31:16; even the BBC's period drama Land Girls was 14:9.

Lis Howell, head of the MA courses in Broadcast and Television Journalism at City University, told the meeting that it is a similar story on news programmes in terms of the number of "experts" invited to speak. 6-1 in favour of men on the Today programme for example.

Helen Lewis, assistant editor and columnist at the New Statesman, spoke about a more recent phenomenon: the cyber-attacks on women bloggers. After giving a number of graphic examples of the abuse hurled at women, she said:

"Free speech is wonderful but it does not give people the right to publish sexual abuse on social media networks or the internet. Male bloggers do get some abuse, but nowhere near this level, nor of a sexual nature.
"Jane Fae, a transsexual, has found that she has a very different postbag depending whether she writes as a man or woman. As a woman, it is much more sexually violent. What we have to lobby for is for national papers to realise that they are not the equivalent of the toilet wall. We need to get the management to take it seriously."

And in the new media, surely untainted by the hierarchies of old media, it seems that men are still dominant, research by Alex Klaushofer of New Model Journalism, has found. She said from the founders of pay-what-you-want sports mag, the Blizzard, to the inventor of innovative advertising system, Addiply, the population of pioneers is overwhelmingly male. She said:

"Of virtually all the start-ups hardly any were women. It's puzzling. Is it an emerging form of e-patriarchy?"

Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, said:

"There is a very narrow portrayal and very narrow perception of women in the media. It is deeply pernicious and very difficult not to internalise it. We have a responsibility not to be limited by heterosexual hegemonies."

The meeting agreed that women should work together to help each other to get around the boys' network that oils the wheels for the men. Women in the media should act as mentors to younger women entering the industry. Women should put themselves forward to be experts: surely they know as much as men? And if all else fails perhaps they can take up the advice of feminist activist Linda Bellos and withhold their license fee.

Read Women's Views on the News, the women's daily online news service.

Read Alex Klaushofer's blogs on the New Model Journalism site.


Men typically outnumber women by 4:1 on a huge range of news and current affairs programmes across channels. And where women are used, they often feature as case studies or victims.

We want broadcasters to better reflect the nation and the increasing numbers of women in professional positions and to provide more positive role models for young women. 30 percent is a realistic target and without it, broadcasters will only pay lip service to equality and nothing will change.

View the petition.


Listen to the edited highlights of the event, produced by Claire Colley:

Listen to a recording of the full event, produced by Claire Colley:

Speaker timings for the full event podcast:

  • Michelle Stanistreet: intro: 0:00
  • Jess Hurd: 02:37
  • Helen Lewis: 15:38
  • Lisa Campbell and Lis Howell: 22:58
  • Linda Bellos: 33:30
  • Lynda Rooke: 46:22
  • Alison Clark: 55:00
  • Alex Klaushofer : 1:01:28
  • Maureen Paton: 1:10:02
  • Sue Ledwith: 1:15:27
  • Helen Goodman: 1:26:57
  • Audience comments: 1:36:04

Tags: , women, sexism, equality, tuc