Women can resist testosterone-fuelled political debate

Posted by Dr. Michael White, Updated on July 30th, 2019
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It seems to me there's little dispute - from David Cameron down - that having only four women in the cabinet is a pretty sorry state of affairs, especially more than 30 years after the Conservatives made history with the country's first female prime minister.

But where there is significant room for argument is how best to address the dearth of women in politics and, it appears from this survey, the consequent failure to engage properly with a majority of the electorate. Both under this Government and its Labour predecessors, ministers (yes, usually men) seem to think that banging on about childcare and maternity leave will magically enthuse women hitherto focused on getting out the door, dropping off the kids, making it into work without porridge on the lapel and with a vague notion of what's going on in the world.I'd argue that like men, what women really want ministers to do and talk about is how to fix the economy. But my impression is that what really persuades women voters to reach for the off switch is the tone of the debate.

From the Prime Minister's rather revealing "calm down dear" aside to the female MP Angela Eagle, to the men (read Health Minister Jeremy Hunt) popping up to opine on the need to restrict women's abortion rights - ministers all too easily slip into hectoring and bullying, interrupting and patronizing. The aggression and testosterone in the House of Commons is the biggest turn-off. But it's a culture the media has failed to root out too.

When Chloe Smith was mauled on TV by Jeremy Paxman after the budget, or when you see three men in suits playing aggressive intellectual ping pong on the news, how many women decide this kind of blood sport isn't what they want to watch? The gender imbalance in the media means a macho, outdated style of interviewing and choice of voices persists.

The Women in Journalism survey yesterday found that male hacks wrote 78 percent of front pages, and men accounted for 84 percent of those mentioned or quoted in lead pieces. And that's just the journalists. Partly because of the original point the lack of women in politics, business, and finance - those stats look even more depressing when you look at the gender mix of the contributors interviewed - in print and TV.

On Channel 4 News, we keep a tally of the number of women who come on the programme to try and get a better mix of guests. But we frequently run up against the problem that women are reluctant to debate live if they think it's going to turn into a right old ding-dong. (Our guest-bookers also report that women frequently say 'I'm not really an expert' - not something they hear so often from the guys.)

To help change the culture and change the terms of debate, women have got to fight for the front-page stories, put themselves up for interviews, take on the blokes. Perhaps the best way to change the tone and style of political debate in this country is to be part of it. In other words, the 40 percent who don't seem to mind about the paucity of women in Government have got to be persuaded that there is indeed a problem there, and start making a fuss about it.

 

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