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Debate: Media treatment of female politicians, which side is to blame?

Panel debate women politics

Last week’s debate, The Media: A Female Politician’s Worst Enemy, marked a fiery first meeting of the Women in Parliament All Party Parliamentary Group.

The panel was chaired by George Pascoe-Watson, former political editor at The Sun, and comprised women poised at both ends of both the political and media spectrum.

While some may have been disappointed that no male panelists were available for this first debate, an encounter between the politically opposed Janet Street-Porter and Louise Mensch didn’t fail to provide an instance or two where the panel could occasionally lock antlers: “If you’re going to have your picture in GQ, you’re going to invite a certain amount of comment,” scoffed Street Porter.

In the midst of this, Sky News’ political correspondent Sophy Ridge contributed some intelligent insights into differences between how male and female politicians use the media to their advantage, reminding the audience that building relationships is key to good coverage.

Male politicians, Ridge observed, actively call bookers during the week whereas women rarely do it at all. The Sky production team, she said, tends to book more female guests at the weekend, often due to the guests’ family commitments. This suggests that family life is still a constraint to many female politicians. And as Anne McElvoy reminded the audience, “women make a decision when they decide to enter into public life”.

This may have reminded the audience of when Mensch, during the Home Affairs select committee that made her name, famously asked to deliver all her questions to News International so she could leave early to pick her children up from school.

Whatever your thoughts on her actions, Mensch gained column inches in making a statement on how she chooses to balance her life in the public eye with her home life.

For a few members of the panel, the woman’s role, with its maternal responsibilities, necessitates a greater professional resolve for dealing with the media. Street-Porter advised women to “stop whinging”, which bolstered the consensual argument that a female politician needs a steely reserve.

The issue of how women are often portrayed in the media was also discussed. Mensch disagreed with Street Porter, rejecting her opinion that women are a large part

of the problem because they are usually the main consumers of sexist stories. Mensch said: “Women have plenty of political and interesting things to say, but the newspapers just aren’t letting them say it.”

But thinking GQ and other titles perhaps aren’t the best outlet for communicating serious political views, the panel were deaf to the argument. McElvoy jibed: “Put your cleavage away if you don’t want it commented on.”

The media is a commercial beast. It tries to spice up politics by personalising it, as otherwise there is the worry that the public won’t take notice. So their reporting of Vince Cable not being able to find his car after a Cabinet meeting is the same tactic as publishing photos of Theresa May catching her kitten heels in the pavement.

Women in positions of power don’t read such stories. Theresa May wouldn’t have got where she was today if she was worrying about what people thought of her Russell & Bromley collection. It’s clear that more female politicians need to learn how to handle themselves in the media, McElvoy argued.

Another point raised was that male politicians get both silly and serious coverage, whereas with women it is often either or, as with Theresa May’s recent Total Politics article.

Mensch openly criticised The BBC for not adequately representing women both in their ratio of male to female journalists, as well as guests across flagship political programmes. However, the situation is only so, not because of the media, but because of the imbalance that exists within society as a whole. The percentage of male guests on The Today Programme is not down to BBC bias but to the shortage of women in boardroom positions in the UK. Politicians need to address this problem before they point the finger at the media.

It’s an issue we’re seeing take precedent across the technology sector amongst others, with innovative companies leading the way in driving greater gender representation at board level. It needs to become the general consensus that employing the best candidates for roles will always be better than setting gender quotas.

Here at LEWIS, we employ talent and our executive team is made up of some of the best female leaders within the industry. I don’t think for a minute they let gender issues get in the way of business, but are passionate about ensuring all employees, no matter what their background or gender, benefit from the best career opportunities that will inspire others to climb the ladder.

Although panellists offered no clear solutions to the problem, it was clear that the debate could have continued well into the evening.I hope future events may help to shed some light on  issues which were not addressed during the course of the night. Namely, the commercial engine that drives the media, which could explain why female politicians are treated differently from their male counterparts. In addition, the social issue of how to reconcile a woman’s personal and professional roles in public life.

The most important take-away was the need for a wider debate on the role of women in public life. It should not be, as Street-Porter argued, about quotas, but a step change at grassroots level in schools and businesses, as well as politics.

There need to be more opportunities available to aspirational women in all areas of society so they can finally begin to offset the imbalance and to inspire more women to engage in public life.

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