(This post was first published at Platform 10 on 2 February 2012.)
On Wednesday, 1 February, the APPG for Women in Parliament held a panel discussion on the way that female politicians were portrayed in the media. The Guardian reported this as a damp squib, asserting that the conclusion of the debate was: “if you can’t stand the heat, just get your kitten-heels out of the kitchen”.
That’s a rather disingenuous interpretation. Certainly, Janet Street-Porter (The Mail on Sunday) advocated that view. But she also seemed to hold rather contradictory views; advocating “guerrilla tactics” at the start of the debate and legally-binding quotas for public appointments and elections at the end of the debate.
The “you deserve the coverage you get” attitude was also firmly held by Anne McElvoy (The Economist), who pointed out that politics is a business for peacocks. Journalists look for things to write about, be it a woman’s cleavage or the Prime Minister’s bald spot. Don’t wear ridiculous outfits, says Janet Street-Porter, referring to Caroline Flint’s various fashion choices. The difficulty with that argument is that different people have different ideas about what a “ridiculous outfit” is.
The problem, of course, is that the clothes and the shoes and the “how does it feel to be a woman and an MP” questions overwhelm the rest of it. Emma Reynolds recounts occasions when she expected to talk about a particular policy and all the press wanted to know was what how difficult it was to get elected. Male politicians appear GQ and nobody blinks: Louise Mensch does it and it’s discussed as a feminist issue. And yes, there is a disproportionate amount of coverage of Theresa May’s shoes.
If the panellists representing the media were asserting how the media is tough on everyone, the MPs asked how the lack of coverage of women and the lack of women in politics fed into one another. On the Today Programme that morning Louise Mensch counted 22 men and four women, while Newsnight is ubiquitous in its maleness. She wasn’t arguing for absolute parity, merely for more women’s voices to be heard. The press is excluding women’s views when they could be benefiting from them.
Women have a different relationship with the media. Sophy Ridge (Sky News) said that female MPs don’t push themselves forward, don’t phone up every week asking to be on TV (an unnamed male MP apparently does do this) and don’t want to speak on subjects they are less familiar with. Sadly, this may be entirely logical behaviour, given the media’s tendency to either focus on women’s shoes or to deride them as airheads, but it provides no escape from the vicious cycle. As Angie Bray said, those politicians who get to the top, like Theresa May, are firstly tough and secondly learn how to deal with the media. No one in politics can decide to have nothing to do with the media.
Speaking from the audience, former MP Gillian Shephard (now Baroness Shephard) agreed that a tough skin was important. It’s hardly fair to put every portrayal of women in the media down to the “if you wear those shoes then that’s all we’ll write about” attitude. Women on television get held to a higher standard of appearance than their male counterparts, and women on the internet receive far more criticism.
Do female politicians all agree with each other on how to address this? Of course not: they’re from different political parties. Women don’t agree with each other simply because they’re women. We want the brightest and the best women in Parliament, and we don’t want them turned off politics because of the portrayal of female politicians. The under-representation of women in politics and the lack of coverage of women’s views in the press are intimately related.
And the best quote of the night? As Janet Street-Porter loudly asserted that quotas were the only way to get more women into Parliament and at least half the panel and most of the audience raised their voices against her, someone at the back of the room shouted out: “ladders not quotas!” That’s the debate the APPG should have next.