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Q&A with Dr Blair Williams co-author of the 2021 Women for Media ‘Take the Next Steps’ report

Dr Blair Williams

On November 17 2021, the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia (WLIA) released ‘Take the Next Steps’ – the fifth and most comprehensive report in our Women for Media series.

Led by journalist and academic Dr Jenna Price with Dr Blair Williams the report explores the role of female voices in Australian news, those quoted in news stories, and those who wrote the stories.

The 2021 report combines quantitative and qualitative analysis of more than 60,000 articles across the month of May 2021, plus in-depth interviews with leading figures in the media landscape. Media icon and business leader, Ita Buttrose, was interviewed for the report and made a comment on the need to ‘take the next steps,’ from which this report takes its name.

In the inaugural Women for Media 2012 report, women accounted for 20 per cent of all comments. The Women for Media research methodology has evolved since then, but in 2013 and 2016 the report showed little movement. In 2019, a discrete sample of page one stories or of the main story on the home page revealed improvement in the elevation of women’s voices – 34 per cent of stories featured women. In 2021 the huge ‘Big Picture’ data set shows that 31 per cent of quotes in the month of May were by women.

While the results still indicate there is a way to go, Australian news organisations are encouragingly taking the next steps to elevate the voices of women. When WLIA published its last report in 2019, few news organisations were willing to go on the record about the challenges of addressing gender representation both in their newsrooms and in the news. It’s a different story now:

We spoke with co-author Dr Blair Williams about her background and experience working on this significant report.

Hi Blair, thanks for your time today, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in working on the latest Women For Media report?

I’ve been a Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the Australian National University since December 2020, focusing on the gendered media coverage of women in politics. This work continues a line of thought set in motion by my doctoral research, which concluded in 2020 and set out to study mainstream print media use of gender tropes and norms in reportage of five women prime ministers: Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. In fact, my report co-author Dr Jenna Price and I met when we were both PhD candidates at a conference for which we presented on the same panel. I thought her 2019 Women For Media report was absolutely brilliant, albeit shocking, so I was very excited at the prospect of working with her on this sequel!

What was your main area of research focus for the report?

Jenna and her team directed the interviews as well as the collection and analysis of the ‘Top Billing’ data, while I focussed on ‘The Big Picture’ data, collecting previous research for the literature review, and interpreting the categories in the ‘Top Billing’ section, like Government and Politics, Business and Finance, COVID-19 and Sport. I had a great time comparing print and online publications as well as teasing out the relationship between a lack of women in political leadership and a lack of women subjects in political reportage.

Did you have a 'favourite finding?" or uncover anything in the work that was particularly surprising?

I found it pretty shocking that women’s voices are completely underrepresented in stories covering COVID-19, despite the many fantastic women epidemiologists and public health experts in Australia. I was also fairly surprised that several conservative papers, like The Daily Telegraph or The Courier-Mail, had some of the highest numbers of bylines written by women while these were few and far between in progressive papers like The Saturday Paper and Crikey – though, to be fair, those two publications are relatively modest in their output and therefore the sample taken from their pages was small.

I did, however, find myself pleasantly surprised by the improvement in the number of op-eds written by women in The Sydney Morning Herald – the only publication that had a majority women-authored op-eds. In conversation with Jenna and her team, the editor noted that she had made an effort to amplify women’s voices, especially when it came to op-eds, so it’s great to see this tangible impact!

How have you found the reception to the report and what do you hope the report provides to the broader community?

It was great to see the report gain significant public and media attention and to read some stories that included sincere reflection on the workplace. I don’t think people were shocked by the findings, but rather frustrated by this evidence that women’s voices are still underrepresented, and that progress toward equality is so slow.

I hope the report will encourage media organisations to examine the gender balance not only of their own newsrooms but of who they ask for expert quotes. I very much hope they improve their practices when engaging with expert sources to encourage more women to speak to the media, for example by being more upfront about the interview process, giving advance notice to allow time to prepare, and actively seeking out and supporting women experts.

You recently were awarded the ANU Vice Chancellor's Award for research on gender & politics can you tell us a bit more about that and what you are working on now?

Thank you, yes, I am still over the moon! I received the prestigious and highly competitive ANU Vice-Chancellor's Award for Impact and Engagement in recognition of the substantial impact of my research within and beyond the academy, bridging the gap between scholarly publication and public communication and engaging with local, national, and international communities. I have shared my research through a variety of public platforms and media, including a well-received TEDx Talk in 2019, over 35 op-eds in news publications, and almost 100 expert interviews for radio, newspaper, television, and podcasts. I think this is a crucial skill for a scholar of gender and politics, as our research can shape change and push for societal gender equality.

I’m currently working on a few different projects, analysing the gendered media coverage of women leaders’ response the COVID-19 pandemic, examining the gendered double standards of Murdoch press coverage of political women, as well as looking at political cartoons and memes of our leaders through a gendered lens. I am also working on a manuscript for a scholarly monograph adapted from my doctoral research.

You write regularly for the Canberra Times and the Conversation, where else can our community find you online and read your work?

Those interested to read more of my work can find me in Broad Agenda, The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership’s Essays on Equality and Australian Outlook. Those looking for a more in-depth perspective can also read my analysis of gender and political leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, in collaboration with Emerita Professor Carol Johnson, in Politics & Gender.

Do you have any tips for women (or organizations) who are interested in working more closely with the media?

I think the most important thing is to put yourself out there! In our report, we drew from the brilliant research of Dr Kathryn Shine who’s examined the lack of women academic experts in the media. She found that there were many factors that deterred women academics from being interviewed by the media, such as a lack of confidence, reluctance to appear on camera and a lack of understanding of the operation of news media. While there is plenty that news organisations could do to make the experience more comfortable and transparent for women experts, it’s important for us to not second-guess ourselves – sometimes we need to “have the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

It’s also important that we pitch op-ed ideas if we have them, to offer readers more than pale stale male opinions. I know it’s daunting to put yourself out there and have your words published for all to see – I still find it anxiety-inducing – but we must push past that because what we have to say also matters.

Also, Twitter is a great tool to create networks and connections which can lead to media contacts. You can find me @BlairWilliams26

Read the report #WomenForMedia



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