By Lorraine Courtney

At least one Sunday newspaper always adorns its male-dominated business section with an attractive, often skimpily dressed woman. The weekend lifestyle supplements of several Irish newspapers lean on their female correspondents to reveal their personal lives and ideally to remove as much clothing as possible for personal features.

Stephanie Roche’s appearance at the ‘Puskas’ attracted as much attention to the gawpings of Ronaldo and Messi, as for the skill manifest. Her goal-scoring prowess somehow required that she appear in her underwear in a photoshoot for another Sunday.

For bright young women leaving university, journalism must seem a tantalisingly desirable career. After all everyone knows our newspapers and magazines are full of female bylines. Women can make their name early, so that they are established in their work before having children. And talent is so transparent that the world of media must of course be a true meritocracy.

On April 18 female journalists will meet in Ballybunion for the annual ‘Women in Media’ event. Some might survey this bright and confident gathering and wonder why on earth they need it. Some men, particularly, will watch in horror or amusement, though more confident men might approve. But if you look at women journalists as members of yet another profession where few get the top jobs or have a say in the culture and tone of their work, you will understand why female journalists must do it.

Joan O’Connor is one of the organisers and when asked why she first set the event up she says: “Put simply, as the mother of two young girls I look forward to reminiscing with them in time to come about how and more importantly why we felt the need to set up Women in Media way way back in 2013”.

The Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) maps the representation of women and men in news media worldwide and its research has been carried out in five-year cycles since 1995. The 1995, 2000 and 2005 studies revealed that women are grossly underrepresented in news coverage and the depressing result of this under-representation is an imbalanced picture of the world, in which women are often absent, resulting in news that presents a male-centred view of the world.

On 10 November 2009, 1,281 newspapers, and television and radio stations were monitored in 108 countries for the fourth GMMP. The research covered 16,734 news items, 20,769 news personnel (announcers, presenters and reporters), and 35,543 total news subjects. Only 24% of the people heard or read about in print, radio and television news are female. In contrast  that’s more than three out of four of the people in the news are male.

However, this is a significant improvement from back in 1995 when only 17pc of the people in the news were women. But despite a slow but overall steady increase in women’s presence in the news over the past 10 years, the world described in the news remains mostly male.

Where they do figure in the news, women remain embedded in the ‘ordinary’ people categories, in contrast to men who continue to predominate in the “expert” categories. They made up 44pc of persons interviewed in the news in this kind of role compared to just 34pc in 2005. Despite the gains, only 19pc of spokespersons and 20pc of experts are women.  In contrast, 81pc of spokespersons and 80pc of experts in the news are male.

Since 2000 the percentage of stories reported by women compared to those reported by men has increased in all major topics except for science and health stories. Nonetheless, stories by male reporters continue to exceed those by female reporters in all topics. The changes range from three to eleven percentage points, the highest increase being in fluffier stories on celebrities and the arts. Men report 67 percent of stories on politics/government, 65 percent of stories on crime/violence and 60pc of stories on the economy. The percentage of stories on science/health reported by women declined sharply between 2000 and 2005 from 46 percent to 38 percent.

So how do we compare? The first Missing Voices survey, monitoring female expertise on radio panels here, was carried out in 2010 and has been followed by similar surveys in 2012, 2013 and October 2014. Researchers Lucy Keaveney and Dolores Gibbons found that RTÉ Radio 1 made definite progress. ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’, ‘News at One’, ‘Drivetime’, ‘Late Debate’ and ‘The Marian Finucane Show’ all increased their representation of women during the four-year period.

However, they have included two new programmes in the latest survey and both had disappointing figures. Sunday’s ‘This Week’ had just 12 percent female participation and on Sunday 12 October it actually had an all-male line up, with two male presenters and six male guests. ‘Saturday with Brian Dowling’ had a female representation of a very low 17 percent.

Stephanie Roche in the Sindo
Stephanie Roche in the Sindo

Today FM also registered improved inclusivity with ‘The Last Word’ increasing from 14pc female representation in 2010 to 28pc in 2014. Keaveney and Gibbons found little evidence of progress in addressing gender balance at Newstalk. ‘The Pat Kenny Show’ fell from 35pc to 17pc while ‘The Right Hook’ dropped by 15pc to only 5pc. The only show to improve was their breakfast one.

Sports coverage proved a big issue. It was almost always dealt with from a male perspective and ignored female successes in sport. TG4 was an exception to this and does have significant coverage of women’s sporting events. A notable syndrome was that female voices are frequently heard reading scripted items (such as the weather and traffic reports) and women were also far more likely to be heard discussing topics like health, education, caring, cooking etc, perpetuating redundant stereotypes of the female as carer or victim.

Another issue was the current affairs programmes surveyed often allowed men to talk over and interrupt women as they gave their opinions, undermining the female panellist’s input.

There’s a gaping hole when it comes to research on the numbers of women working in print here but if we accept the global norms, according to research published by the American Society of News Editors, 36pc of those working full-time in daily newspapers are women.

A study carried out by the Association of Women Journalists in France showed that women journalists choose six percent more stories on women than men journalists do, and so the idea that serious newspapers should cover the whole human condition, and not just the political, economic and cerebral part of it, is probably the biggest contribution that female journalists have made. This approach does not exclude men, but women at last have given men the licence to admit that these stories are important too. As a result, broadsheet newspapers are now more rounded and better reflect their readers’ lives.

The choice of story angle, the choice of interviewee, the use of language and the choice of images all have a bearing on the messages that emerge in the news. Women want better links with other women. We want the confidence and strength in numbers to stand up to the male culture that holds firm in so many areas of the industry. We want our concerns to be heard, on anything from family friendly policies to the portrayal of women in the media. And we want the same opportunities as men: in our careers, our wages, and our ability to influence the news agenda, the budgets and the policy-making of the publications we work for.

There are still more men than women in public life, women transgressing accepted social and moral codes are deemed more newsworthy than male equivalents, and a premium is placed on a woman’s appearance. The point, however, is that despite what may often seem the best intentions and even amidst the growing coverage now given to so-called ‘woman-friendly’ stories (pro-family,work / life balance etc) the media does, still, get it so very wrong.

The public may not expect their media to do more than society, but they can certainly expect them to keep up.

Against a background of distorted, sexist and often even lurid portrayals of women, “Where are the female influencers?” remains the question and at least 50 percent of us are waiting for the answer. •