“THE world is changed by your example, not by your opinion,” said the celebrated Brazilian writer Paulo Coehlo, who funds services for children and the elderly with the royalties from his book sales. I thought of this sentiment at the start of the year, and set myself a challenge.
In November I’d attended the launch of Women in Journalism Scotland, a networking, campaigning and training organisation that’s put boosting women’s representation at the heart of its mission statement. Nicola Sturgeon was just one of several inspiring speakers who addressed the room, and it felt like the start of something exciting.
The room was full of talented, informed and experienced women with plenty to say, and yet time and time again we see TV panel discussions dominated by men, and hear male voices when we turn on the radio. Thanks to the rise of Twitter, and initiatives like the Women for Independence Media Watch, producers are under more pressure than ever to improve. But are they actually to blame for the unsatisfactory status quo?
Producers are under more pressure than ever to improve. But are they actually to blame for the unsatisfactory status quo?
On my way home from the launch party, I was buzzing with positivity. I hoped and believed the new organisation might help encourage more women to get themselves on the radio and TV, and I was ready to cheer when it did.
Some time later, I realised the problem. What if every woman in the room was thinking the same thing? Thinking “Yes! Other women should definitely be doing this.” What if none of them were actually thinking: “It should be me”.
I decided this would be my Year of Speaking Dangerously. That when opportunities to speak in public or on air came along, I would feel the fear and seize them anyway.
Women are very good at coming up with reasons why they shouldn’t speak. This doesn’t just apply to those in journalism, but women in every profession who might be asked to contribute to a media conversation. First there are the practical obstacles – a scheduling clash, a lack of childcare, a transport issue. Then there’s the question of whether they are really the right person for the job. Perhaps there’s a more senior academic, or a more experienced expert on the subject. Perhaps the woman who gets the call worries the viewers or listeners will think “who does this person think she is?”
Perhaps the woman who gets the call worries the viewers or listeners will think ‘who does this person think she is?’
The concept of imposter syndrome can be traced back to the 1970s, when two female psychologists published a study suggesting high-achieving women were particularly prone to feelings that they did not deserve their success (they favoured “imposter phenomenon”, but the more dramatic label seems to have stuck). However, subsequent studies failed to support the idea that this was a gendered phenomenon, with men just as likely to report feelings of self-doubt. So how, then, to explain the fact that TV producers in Scotland report having to contact six women for every man when trying to book gender-balanced set of contributors?
Perhaps the increasingly loud clamour for more women on screen might actually be as intimidating as it is encouraging. After all, what would be worse than securing a prized slot on Newsnight or Question Time only to make a right hash of it? That wouldn’t just be personally embarrassing – it would be letting the side down, too.
Men and women might suffer similar levels of self-doubt, but it seems that isn’t reflected in their actions. According to the women behind the Parliament Project, which exists to “inspire, empower and encourage” UK women to become political candidates, women need a lot more nudging from others before they put themselves forward. The same theory underpins the ongoing 50:50 Parliament campaign #AskHerToStand – that if enough people say “you’d be great”, a woman might start seriously considering a bid for election. It might be enough for her to set aside misgivings about laying herself open to scrutiny – not to mention making herself a potential target for abuse.
A final reason many women – and no doubt many men – from all walks of life are dissuaded from going on air is that they simply have no experience of doing it, and are understandably worried they might look at the wrong camera, speak at the wrong time, or simply clam up when put on the spot. Women in Journalism Scotland last month took steps to remove this barrier by hosting a training day, for which staff at the BBC and STV generously donated their time and opened up their studios to demystify the experience for those taking their first tentative steps.
What inspired me to send off emails and set up meetings was the extra nudge of generous encouragement from two other women
It was a fantastic day, but even gaining hands-on experience wasn’t quite enough for me. What inspired me to send off emails and set up meetings was the extra nudge of generous encouragement from two other women. “You can do this,” they told me. “You should do this.”
And so I did. I accepted the challenge of a contributor spot on Sunday Politics Scotland, and I lived to tell the tale. I didn’t freeze, or fall off my chair, or get any abuse from Twitter trolls. I’m certainly not going to change the world by popping up on the telly once in a while, but what if I start encouraging other women with opinions to do the same? What if they seize their own opportunities, and the ripples of encouragement spread?
Let’s not just criticise the lack of equal representation – let’s set about fixing it.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.