Amplifying women’s voices

12 January 2020  By Alison Maitland

At a time of deep political and social divisions, when female politicians have resigned citing the level of abuse and threats they’ve received, it is more critical than ever that women are able to make their voices heard.

Speaking out is far from easy. When I wrote leadership interviews for the Financial Times, I sought to profile as many women as possible. The women were less keen to be profiled publicly. Some refused. Some said yes, but tried to set limits on what they would talk about. The few who were enthusiastic had a high profile already or were at the end of stellar careers.

As a journalist, I found this frustrating. Surely women leaders should be willing to tell their stories and encourage younger women to set their ambitions high. The more women were featured, the more this would normalise women as leaders, creating a virtuous circle of progress.

But I also knew that it was harder for women than for men to put their heads above the parapet, as scarcity made them more prone to attack.

More than a decade later, some things have shifted for the better. But many of the same issues remain and new challenges have arisen with the explosion of abuse, often aimed at high-profile women, on social media.

As this is a societal problem, it does not make sense to ask individual women to solve this alone, and I explore systemic solutions below. But there are steps that we can take individually. Each of us has expert or specialist knowledge through the work we do. We have values that guide us, and causes that drive us. We should have the courage of our convictions and step forward to the microphone when invited.

This view is shared by Shari Graydon, founder of Informed Opinions, a Canadian campaign to change the world for the better by amplifying women’s voices in the media. Speaking at the International Women’s Forum conference in Toronto recently, she urged the 1,000 leaders in the room to set inner doubts aside. ‘There is power in our voices,’ she said. ‘If you say “No, I’m not the best person”, the media will not go to the “best person” but to the guy in the next office.’

Despite women holding leadership roles across all sectors, our voices remain under-represented. A Canadian study found that men accounted for 71% of voices in broadcast and print news stories and interviews. Four out of five people quoted as experts in online news from mainstream UK media are men, according to another study carried out on behalf of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.

This under-representation deprives viewers and readers of some of the brightest and best minds and ideas. It also undermines democracy because of the powerful influence of the media on social priorities and policy-making.

Informed Opinions is addressing this partly by training thousands of women to speak up in the media and helping them make their ideas more accessible to broader audiences.

Organisations could also offer such training. Confident communication is on the list of skills for which women would like help from their employers, according to a survey, Getting to Equal, for the organisation My Confidence Matters. It would help in negotiating pay rises, giving presentations, networking and other situations. ‘More training in confidence and public speaking would raise my profile,’ says Rachel Mahoney, HR business partner with Addison Lee Group, quoted in the report. ‘It would give people a better understanding of what value I add.’

Under-representation of women in the media is a systemic issue. One solution is to provide journalists and editors with easy access to a broad range of women experts. In Canada, Informed Opinions has an ‘Expert Women’ database of diverse women willing to speak on different topics. SheSource is a similar database in the US, while the Women’s Room serves this purpose in the UK.

But biases are not easily overcome. If they were, this problem would not persist. A number of prominent journalists, such as New York Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt, have come clean about their failure to include enough women’s voices in their articles. It is tempting to fall back on the argument that there are few women experts because men still dominate many fields. On a busy news day, which is every day, it is easier to pick up the phone to the familiar experts you have quoted before. Leonhardt decided to counter such habits by setting a rule for his daily e-newsletter that he would never cite the work of only one gender. The rule ‘has changed my work’, he says.

Interventions like these are necessary on a grand scale. Informed Opinions keeps the challenge front of mind in Canada with its Gender Gap Tracker, which constantly measures the ratio of female to male sources quoted in major media online articles. It’s still a stark picture.

Another initiative is at the BBC which, although under continuing fire over gender pay inequality, has seen progress on the representation of women on air. The 50:50 Project, initiated by presenter Ros Atkins on his nightly news programme, has spread to more than 550 BBC teams across TV, radio and digital content. There is now a global 50:50 network involving other media organisations such as ABC News in Australia and the Financial Times.

The project’s success in raising the proportion of women contributors appearing in BBC programmes is due to three things, according to research published in Harvard Business Review:

• Individuals shifting from thinking ‘things should be different’ to asking ‘what can I do differently?’
• The collection of evidence of progress before shouting about the initiative.
• A belief in people’s ability to change as long as they have the opportunity, tools and support.

To conclude, amplifying women’s voices requires a mix of collective action, systemic solutions and individual courage. As Shari Graydon told women at the Toronto conference, ‘Any chance to speak out, shine, don’t twist, just shout!’

How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?

This is an edited version of a column first published by IWE, 12 January 2020

©Alison Maitland 2020, all rights reserved

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