When Samantha Brick paraded through the Daily Mail wearing a sandwich board saying "SAVAGE ME "this week, she put the issue of women's role in the media squarely back on the agenda. For me, the furore coincided with the rarest of pleasures for the mother of a toddler- a plane ride alone, and a chance to flick through a forest's worth of newspapers and magazines, uninterrupted.
As I leafed through the pages of the pages of The Week, the magazine that sells itself on the cover as "the best of the US and international media," a weekly current affairs publication that selects extracts from the best of the political blogs, comment pieces and editorials of the previous week, I started to notice a worrying trend.
I was onto page eight before a single female commentator was quoted. I started counting, and found that in the entire politics and current affairs section of the magazine, 35 male commentators were singled out and just four female, one of whom was a Lithuanian journalist writing for a local paper about being given flowers for International Women's Day. Not one of the four was from a major mainstream American newspaper (the closest was Dr Gwen L Dubois writing in the Baltimore Sun, but she is a doctor rather than a professional journalist.)
Recently I had a similar experience when looking something up in the current affairs blog of the UK's Telegraph. Of its featured bloggers on UK politics, 14 are men and only one a woman, its US politics bloggers are four men (no women) and foreign politics are analysed by six men and no women. Over at the Guardian, at the time of writing, the last 15 entries on their political blog were all written by men, with the exception of one short piece by a reader. Other publications (the Huffington Post included) show more equality, but the trend is there.
This is obviously a snapshot of my observations, rather than any kind of statistical analysis of women's representation in the media and blogosphere (although much more exhaustive research on this subject has been done and shows shocking results - this is worth a read) but the experience troubled me.
It is well known that women are underrepresented in serious journalism, and there are obviously a wide variety of reasons for this. Despite the existence of a few fabulous female commentators, there is perhaps a particular dearth of women in mainstream political blogs, editorials and comment pieces. This is of note partly because this is one area of journalism in which the explanation that is usually wheeled out; that women's family commitments inevitably get in the way of their careers; just doesn't cut it. Commenting about current events from the safety of a desk has to be one of the most family friendly jobs available in journalism- perfect for anyone, male or female who would rather knock off at 5 o'clock to cook fish-fingers than slog it out in a launch party or a war zone. So there has to be something else behind it.
While plain old-fashioned workplace sexism almost certainly accounts for a fair proportion of the gap, there is probably also something more complex going on. I believe the problem comes from both ends- editors' expectations of the kinds of things women should be writing about, and female journalists' expectations about themselves. My personal theory as to why women are so much less likely than men to publish hard-core political comment pieces is that doing so is going against the overwhelming and often crushing expectation for girls and women to be 'nice.'
The 'niceness tyranny' begins as soon as brother and sister are dressed in their complementary his and hers "little monster" and "little angel" baby t-shirts. (The idea of swapping them feels instinctively emasculating for him and borderline abusive for her) and continues with a barrage of sugar and spice/ slugs and snails stereotypes throughout childhood.
Moving into adulthood, of the various words that are almost exclusively used to describe women (feisty, bubbly, career-orientated, blonde. Any more? Feel free to comment below...) perhaps the most common is 'empathetic.' There is a whole pseudo-science industry, exemplified by the collected tediana of the likes of Simon Baron Cohen and John "Men are From Mars" Gray, dedicated to the removal of any doubt of the superior empathising qualities of women. (Interestingly, the actual scientific research, in properly designed studies disproves the superior female empathising hypothesis and suggests that men are just as likely to be strong empathisers as women.)
Even many feminists and drivers for women's equality continually bring up women's inherent 'niceness '. Harriet Harman, the UK Equalities Minister at the time of the financial crisis is a case in point, famously suggesting that had the investment bank been called "Lehman Sisters" the global financial collapse might never have happened, as presumably in an equivalent position of power, women would have eschewed mouth-frothing risk-taking in favour of consensus, kittens and bunnies.
I'm not a fan of gender essentialism, even when it's dressed up as a compliment. "Aren't the ladies lovely and empathetic" smacks a little too much of the vile "don't the coloureds have a wonderful sense of rhythm?" The flipside of all this emphasis on empathy and consensus is that it makes women believe they can't be authoritative or controversial, two of the most important qualities needed to write political comment pieces.
The Samantha Brick debacle shows that when editors do want women to court controversy, it's not over their political opinions. Furthermore, although Brick's experience was extreme, and many would suggest that she was asking for it, in general when women do write on controversial topics they tend to come in for huge amounts of abuse and derision, much of it deeply personal, in a way that men simply don't.
Does it matter that women don't write much political comment? Of course. In recent years, the blogosphere has exploded into one great national conversation, providing minute by minute debate over unfolding events. Comment, analysis and above all, opinion, are becoming an ever more important part of the media landscape, shaping the narrative of our culture and providing feedback to politicians about policy. It's a crucial part of our democracy, and in this context it is more important than ever that women's voices are heard, on issues that actually matter, rather the rom-com caricatures of the Daily Mail/ Samantha Brick axis.