Monday, May 17, 2010

Middle aged men in suits - the story of the election and things to come?

When I first really started to become properly aware of equalities issues as a student in the mid 80s, it never really occurred to me that the same themes, of the lack of women in public life, would be an issue a quarter of a century on.

Sure, things have changed a bit since then, but this election campaign was just one example of how blokey things seem to have become again. It seems like we've gone backwards. The only difference is that when I was growing up the politicians I was used to seeing on TV were old men like Harold Wilson, Denis Healey and Jim Callaghan while today's male politicians who dominate the scene are nearer to my age like Nick Clegg (6 months older), David Miliband (2 years older) and David Cameron (9 months older).

The Guardian has an article today in which several prominent women in the news media give their views about why there were so few women on tv during the election campaign.

I guess we have to remember that this virtually female free climate has been fostered under a Labour government. You might understand why when you read this anecdote from the article from Cathy Newman from Channel 4:

During the election campaign, Lord Mandelson took a string of questions from the political editors (all men) before finally turning to me, with an apology to the men and an explanation that he had to get his gender balance right.

To me, Labour, even with its womens' sections back in the 80s, seemed like one of the most misogynist organisations I'd ever come across and if Caroline Flint is to be believed not much changed. It's astonishingly bad that even after all the mechanisms they've used to make their diversity better, that the candidates for Labour leader will be white and male. Personally I'm disappointed that Harriet Harman isn't going for it and I wonder if that's got to do with the maulings she's had in the media in the past. When she was doing PMQs, there always seemed to be a bit more of a point to the proceedings. Sure, she wasn't above the odd bit of political point scoring but her style was much more open and sensible. The Harman/Hague/Vince sessions were like a rare treat to be savoured in amongst the pointless panto of the Brown/Cameron/Nick half hours of hot air.

In the Guardian article, media professor Jean Seaton tells of her anger at having listened to the Today Programme one day and not having heard one female voice. She goes on to point out that it will be women who bear the brunt of public sector cuts:

Moreover, as a huge proportion of women work in the public sector they will be in the front line of the cuts that are promised and they certainly understand the consequences. So you might have thought the broadcasters and press would have pulled the debate towards the half of the electorate the politicians seemed to have forgotten.

I really don't know what the answer is and how to change things. My own party's gender balance in both Scottish and Westminster parliaments is pretty rubbish. It's not for want of trying, either. 40% of our winnable seats had women candidates in the election just gone but it was heartbreaking to see fantastic women like Sandra Gidley, Bridget Fox, Sal Brinton, Julia Goldsworty, Susan Kramer, Claire Kelley, Karen Gillard, Sarah Carr, Terrye Teverson and Katy Gordon all defeated or not winning despite running amazing campaigns. Dinti Batstone from the Gender Balance Task Force told yesterday's Special Conference that it was easy to be smug about women in Parliament when you had safe seats - but Labour and the Tories with their embarrassment of riches in the safe seats department are not as far ahead of us as they should be. I wouldn't normally suggest that we follow Alex Salmond's example on anything, but I understand that he was proactive in ensuring that he was succeeded at Westminster by an excellent woman, Eilidh Whiteford. John Reid's seat for Labour has been taken by Pamela Nash. Yet when Lib Dem John Barrett stepped down in Edinburgh West, on paper the safest Lib Dem seat in the country, the party had a good opportunity to improve the diversity of its ranks in some way and didn't take it.

I think this is one area where we need to forget about political and media boundaries and work together to change things from the grassroots up. Like we scrutinise the media for lack of Liberal Democrat representation, we need to look out and record examples where things are presented in a way that does not reflect the gender diversity and we need to do more to promote real women. There is, of course, no shortage of reporting of women in the media, but those women are usually celebrities who are getting pasted for being too fat, too thin, having their relationships analysed, their complexions and diets studied in microscopic detail in a way that is profoundly disturbing to me as mother of a 10 year old girl.

There is hope, though. While the faces of the media reporting politics as I was growing up were exclusively male, my daughter has the likes of engaging and authoratative Laura Kuenssberg and Channel 4's Cathy Newman.

I would feel really gloomy if it wasn't for the fact that our Lynne Featherstone is now in charge of Equalities and I can't wait to see what she brings to that job. She will undoubtedly have a challenge, though - until the men with most of the power accept that there is a problem and help to do something about it, the majority of the population will continue to be excluded and marginalised.

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