Archive | April, 2014

The public face of women

29 Apr

Yesterday in the New Statesman, media scholars Heather Savigny and Deirdre O’Neill outlined the findings of their study of newspaper coverage of women MPs over the last couple of decades. It makes for sobering reading – not only is coverage often appearance-oriented and casually sexist, but it is also more often negative than coverage of male MPs. And over time these traits appear to have become more, rather than less, pronounced.

So as women’s representation in Parliament has increased (to the dizzying 22% of today), the propensity for their voices to be heard has decreased. Savigny and O’Neill find that ‘As well as a relative decrease in women appearing as the main actors in stories, in relative terms they were being quoted less in 2012 [than 1992 or 2002]’. Press coverage appears to reinforce the ‘maleness’ of the political sphere, with women MPs less likely to be included in newspapers, and often to be reported on with reference to their dress sense or their body parts, rather than their views on political issues.

These findings have come out in the week following the Times’ exhortation for more women to become involved in political blogging, covered by Charlotte Henry here. Henry suggests that a lack of female role models and fears of negative public reactions may deter women from taking part in the political conversation opening up online; Savigny and O’Neill refer to work by the Fawcett Society citing the sexism they encounter as a reason why some female MPs stand down. It seems to come back to entrenched views around what is considered an authoritative public voice, a credible representative – these remain on a default male setting.

I came across another piece in the Huffington Post where Meryl Streep (most lauded female screen actor of her generation) said that she had wondered perhaps if she was ‘too ugly’ to be an actress, and urged younger performers to be less concerned about their weight. This was accompanied by a slide show of ‘unconventional beauties’ which included Sophia Loren and Julianne Moore – these women, and others on the list, are, I would have thought, quite simply ‘beautiful’. Are our standards of ‘conventional beauty’ narrowing so that beautiful women are seen to conform to ever more limited traits? And what of the rest of us? Just as women’s visibility may finally have potential to increase across public domains, the rush to judgement on appearance – often before judgement on merit or skill – may hold back many from coming forward in a visual media age.




A Cabinet of curiosities

10 Apr

Maria Miller’s departure from Cabinet this week created a vacancy for the portfolio for women, as well as for her role as Minister of State for Culture Media and Sport.

The incoming Minister for Women is Nicky Morgan – a woman – unlike Miller’s replacement as Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid. He will apparently take over the equalities brief, working on areas apart from women’s equality. In a remarkably ham-fisted set of announcements, it was confirmed that the new Minister for Women will report directly to the Prime Minister, thereby reversing an initial perception that the Women’s Minister would have to answer to a man en route to influence in Cabinet. But Nicky Morgan will not have a full seat at the table, as the Minister for Women now enjoys only ‘attends Cabinet’ status.

It has been reported in the Guardian that ‘Morgan will only attend [Cabinet] when issues pertaining to her brief are on the agenda’. This rather suggests that the Government does not consider that issues affecting women are a part of every Cabinet meeting. For a Prime Minister and Government already widely accused of having a ‘women problem’ this seems to confirm the message that ‘women’s issues’ are an occasional add-on to the mainstream of Cabinet business.

As she has a child, Nicky Morgan helps the Prime Minister avoid having a Cabinet devoid of mothers.   It seems a salutary reminder of the ways of the world that whilst the majority of male Cabinet ministers are fathers, none of the three fully-fledged female Cabinet ministers (Theresa May, Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers) are mothers. Given that less than 10% of children attend private schools (and only a small minority of University students go to Oxford or Cambridge), but around 80% of women have children, the current Cabinet seems a very odd reflection of reality indeed. The UK now ranks 20th out of 28 EU countries in terms of the proportion of women at ministerial level, and more Cabinet ministers attended one Oxford college (Magdalen) than there are women ministers. These statistics should ring alarm bells not only for politicos advising on the government’s electoral strategy, but for female voters who wish to call their ‘representatives’ to account.



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