I had the strange experience last night of being one of only two men at a gathering of more than 60 people. Strange, that is, for me, although as it became clear, for most of the people present the idea of being the only representative of your gender in a group – particularly of professional or senior people – was just how it is.
What’s all this got to do with news and journalism you may ask? I’ll come to that in a bit but first it might help to explain what the female rich occasion was. The event at Birmingham City University was called ‘Levelling the playing field: new initiatives in women’s equality’. It was part of the university’s efforts to be given membership of Athena Swan, the organisation set up to ‘encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research’. That initial focus on STEMM subjects has been broadened now to cover the full range of academic areas.
More importantly ‘Levelling’ was a chance to learn more about the embryonic Women’s Equality Party and its Birmingham Regional rep, Katy Wareham-Morris, was one of the panellists. She was alongside two BCU Professors, Maxine Lintern and Sue Rivers (only 19% of the Professoriate is female). It was a wide-ranging discussion which pointed up the continuing need for a change in deep-rooted attitudes to ensure women are fully equal – ‘Able’, in the words of Sue Rivers, ‘to be exactly what they want to be.’
Others more appropriate than I can expand on the issues and questions thrown up and examined during the thoroughly worthwhile 90 minutes. I was struck, though, that while attitudes to gay people have transformed in my adult life time and we’ve made progress in combating racism women still struggle for full equality. We’re not talking, remember, about another minority group here but half of the human race. So, what role, I wondered, have people like me – journalists and media types – played in preventing change happening and what might we need to do in future.
I’ve never had much (if any) time for those who rush to blame ‘the media’ for everything from indolence and under achievement to Islamists and over eating. In this case, however, I have some questions raised not least by the coverage of the thoughtless remarks of Sir Tim Hunt and the response to them. We are giving news space to discussing whether he has been harshly treated (hang on, he resigned) and whether those who’ve criticised him should apologise. There have been reference to a ‘media/social media witch hunt’ (actually the Distractingly Sexy Twitter stream was wonderfully funny) and we’ve had sympathetic interview with his wife talking of how they sat together on the sofa and wept as they considered what was happening.
I’m in no way suggesting there shouldn’t be proper balance in our reporting of this story – though if his ‘joke’ had been at the expense of black or gay scientists there would be no debate about whether he has been ‘hung out to dry’. All I want to do is pose the question of what coverage of this story would have been like in news outlets run by and for women? In such a world would we ever have seen the coining of the term Feminazi? Would we be expected to read features on how the new face of feminism wears striking red lipstick while she totters around on four inch heels?
These are just questions but if we are to get the shift in culture that the ‘Levelling the playing field’ panellists wanted – and which has happened in other areas of life and social attitudes – those questions need to be asked. So alongside the Women’s Equality Party what about a news outlet dedicated to the same ends?