This article was originally published in The Age on 25 October, 2016.
We started a secret project to fix it.
Concerned about the small number of female voices on-air, as hosts, regular guests and callers, I contacted Amy Mullins from the Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia, an organisation trying to fix the gender imbalance in visible and significant positions.
The WLIA website allows you to directly contact over 200 women executives, leaders and thinkers across a broad range of industries and disciplines. These women have put their hand up to speak in the media and on conference panels.
Producer Harriet Lonnborn and I met Mullins, who detailed some of the ways that women are excluded from the national conversation: quoted less frequently in the news, writing only a fraction of the opinion pieces printed in newspapers (yes, I am aware this isn’t helping) and appearing less frequently on TV and radio as experts.
Running the ”Mornings with Jon Faine” radio program we decided to do what we could in our tiny corner of the media world to change things.
We’d never really counted what the gender ratio of our guests was, so we set ourselves the obvious target of 50 per cent of female guests on-air.
Easy, we thought.
The first day was … terrible. We had just one female voice out of 11 guests. That’s 9 per cent.
The first week was 33 per cent overall – the same ratio as the months before we started our project.
It didn’t take long to work out why: we’re starting every day behind.
Our host is male. Of our long-standing regular weekly guests, just six of 15 are female. Their fill-ins are pretty much the same ratio.
Of the popular irregular guests, the Premier, Opposition Leader, Lord Mayor, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, the heads of the public transport system, road network and emergency services all are male.
So for other experts we used the institute’s website, contacts at universities and our most useful tool: pleading.
A consistent issue was the propensity of capable, storied women to defer our enquiries to similarly-qualified men. Chief executives suggested their chair would be a better spokesperson, doctors with decades of experience would say they were unqualified to talk about a sector of their specialty
Mullins explains that this reticence isn’t about a lack of belief.
“Research shows it’s just not the case that women are less confident in themselves than men,” she said. “They are however, less confident that others will recognise and be receptive to their capabilities – and in the context of media – that they’ll be seen as credible or expert sources.”
A further issue is that seeing women in expert positions is still, astonishingly, a surprise.
“We are quite used to seeing men as an ‘authority’ on topics in the media, but less so for women. Elevating women’s voices in the media will go a long way to shifting traditional gender norms and expectations of how women, and men, should act. And that has positive effects for everyone,” Mullins adds.
It’s a long road, but one worth jogging down.
Next time you’re stopped at the lights, peering down the road at a bus stop or avoiding old magazines in a waiting room, look around.
What you’ll see is modern Australia: an amazing and harmonious mix of men and women from here and around the world. According to the last census, more than a quarter of Australians are born overseas, and another 20 per cent on top of that have a parent born overseas.
Few media organisations are hitting the mark on representing our community to the degree they should, so any steps to improve that will help.
Our project to get more female voices on air was just a start.
We were able to add exciting new voices across the broad range of fields we cover and our show now better represents the community it serves.
We want everyone to be a part of the conversation and in a recent week, just three months after we started, 50 per cent of our voices were female.
You know, like society.
Daniel Ziffer is senior producer, Mornings with Jon Faine, 774 ABC Melbourne. These are his personal views.
Further coverage on the project here.