“Sad and cynical… a continuing dearth of feminine voices”: A diversity audit of Radio 4

// 3 August 2011

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brightly coloured photograph of a radio dial This is a guest post by Sharon Jacobs.

On Monday, 1st August, 2011, I listened to a full day of BBC Radio 4. Starting at 5:30am with Farming Today and ending with Book of the Week at 12:30am, I was counting. The F-Word, a few weeks back, reintroduced a hashtag on twitter called #diversityaudit, originally started by Chitra Nagarajan. People were invited to count the number of men and women on whatever they were watching or listening to. Until this point, it had mostly been comedy panel shows, which are notorious for lacking women. Having listened to a fair amount of Radio 4 on my recent travels, I decided to take this one step further.

A couple of caveats before I go on. Firstly, one day of listening cannot possibly be representative of the whole of Radio 4’s output, I don’t claim that this is exactly what Radio 4 is like every single day. However, it remains a telling exercise. Secondly, as much as I would have liked to audit the contributors’ race/religion/sexual orientation/age/gender identity/disability, this is radio, and voices don’t tell us any of that. So I was stuck with perceived gender. Thirdly, through some weird fluke, the day I chose turned out to be the day that the National Union of Journalists went on strike. Because I had promised, I did the audit anyway, but there was news missing. If I can, I will reaudit the news programmes, as I feel that the journalists who were striking deserve to be counted.

graph of gender of contributors to radio 4 output

So, on to the interesting bit: what did I find? A very clear pattern began to emerge at around lunchtime. 2 men for every woman. It was true almost across the board. 28% of the contributors to Radio 4 output (and this includes presenters, guests and journalists) were women. That amounts, if women had the exact same amount of airtime to men, to 17 minutes out of every hour. The statistics were worse if you only looked at presenters (22% women). Oh, and even worse if you look at news bulletins, where only 1 of every 5 people who spoke other than the newsreader were female. The full set of data is available from me if you want them, but these numbers are the ones I would like to focus on.

Graph of gender of radio 4 presenters

So why are the numbers so abysmally low? This turns out to be a complex question, with potentially a different answer for every type of programme. For the news, we could speculate that fewer women are making the news, fewer women are spokespeople and fewer women are journalists corresponding in the subjects of report. The former two problems may well be societal: women tend to not be in positions of power, due to the persistent patriarchy that does not allow women to reach the top, or to speak for the people who do. The latter problem can, however, be blamed squarely on the BBC. Why is it that I heard approximately 7 news reports from Jonty Bloom and 6 bulletins with no woman in them at all? Wikipedia informs me that 74% of BBC reporters are men. There are certain areas in which the imbalance is more pronounced (e.g. Business and Middle East affairs, both 84% male) but it’s pretty bad across the board. So let’s hire more women, yes?

As for other types of programmes, we know that comedy is bad for women and there are certain steps being taken to change that. However, programmes such as You and Yours surprised me yesterday. Peter White talked to 8 male “experts” on disability and no female ones. Now, I know something of this world and could name you at least 10 women who would have done just as well. I am not saying they should have taken all the women instead, but we want to be thinking about the effect that all of this masculinity has on the listener.

A pleasant change: Graph of people speaking on woman's hour

By about 4pm I was completely exhausted. I felt sad and cynical and was expecting a continuing dearth of feminine voices. I was ready to pack it all in, because the last conversation between women that I had heard had been at 10:30am with Woman’s Hour (8 women, 4 men). It made me sad that half the population has to struggle to hear themselves represented, even on a radio station that aspires to make women more audible. It was however, small consolation to hear the night come to an end with the sultry tones of Barbara Flynn.

To keep an eye on, or contribute to, the ongoing Diversity Audit, follow the #diversityaudit hashtag on twitter.

Edited to add: You can see Sharon’s spreadsheet of the whole day’s data here.

[The image is a close-up photograph of a vintage-style radio dial. The radio is bright red against a turquoise background. It is used under a Creative Commons license and is by Niklas Morberg]

Comments From You

Jem M // Posted 3 August 2011 at 4:15 pm

Sharon, I think this is a great piece of research and something we should see more of. You mentioned about the abysmal numbers of women in the news features; according to a survey by the Global Media Monitoring Project (March 2010), women feature in just around one fifth of the world’s news headlines and only ten percent of all news stories. So with that in mind, it’s unsurprising (and depressing) you were seeing the results you were!

You may be interested in taking a look at http://www.womensviewsonnews.org who are trying to redress this balance somewhat and a really great example of quite how many news stories feature women around the world every day.

SharonJ // Posted 3 August 2011 at 4:54 pm

Hi Jen,

I do follow Women’s Views on Women and it’s brilliant. Do you have a link to the research you mentioned? It would be really interesting to see their raw data. There were so many different things that I could have looked at: airtime, type of stories women were involved in, etc. The other day I was listening to From Our Own Correspondent it was 3 male correspondents and 1 woman and she was reporting on a “women’s issue”, in this case forced marriage. Need to stay away from the radio for a while, methinks! Also worried about what would have happened had I audited Radio 5 Live! :-)

Jem M // Posted 3 August 2011 at 5:25 pm

Hi Sharon, I think you’ll find a wealth of information (including the research I mentioned) here: http://www.whomakesthenews.org/gmmp-2010-reports.html. Hope that’s useful.:)

Rich Morgan // Posted 3 August 2011 at 9:31 pm

From our own correspondents is hosted by Kate Adie so right there would mean there were two women on that episode, but whatever. While I don’t think the statistics would change drastically I do think that if you’d done your survey on a day that wasn’t affected by the NUJ strike there would be slightly more women. I think a day is too small a sample size to draw truly meaningful conclusions, moreso on a day which even you admit is not entirely representative of business as usual.

For example, looking at your data I notice that while you didn’t record any women that day on You and Yours or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, there are definitely female presenters on Y&Y and while ISIHAC is generally a boys club, if you’d done the survey on Tuesday in the last six weeks you’d be able to add several women thanks to either Lucy Montgomery’s or Sarah Millican’s show. Similarly, Book at bedtime is not solely the preserve of male readers, Front Row’s content changes daily, the afternoon play likewise…

What I’m saying is your diversity audit is pretty flawed. Would even a week give you a truly accurate picture? A year would probably suffice, but I get the feeling you’ve already got the result you want and will be happy to let this flop about the blogosphere as a “fact”.

Gokudo // Posted 4 August 2011 at 8:29 am

Hello, great job on presenting this information, I’d love to see a whole book on these findings. It reminds me of ‘Information is beautiful’ and the diagrams the author uses to show various data in a visual format.

I remember reading an article following a link I’d clicked for reading about the Bechdel test (I’m fairly new to feminism). It was ‘why film schools teach people to not write screenplays with women as leads’. According to the article it’s because people will only pay to see a white male. Could that be the case with radio? People are more likely to listen if a male is talking? Are we as a society conditioned to accept male speech as an authoritative voice?

Radio, tv and other media outlets are there to make a profit. If psychology shows that people tune-out to female voices or switch off when a female is on tv (unless she’s naked of course) then unfortunately the companies whose business interests are at stake will use whatever and whomever will guarantee them an audience.

R. // Posted 4 August 2011 at 9:34 am

That’s some fine mansplaining there Rich, well done. Four or five more women over the course of a week wouldn’t change 28% to 50%, now would it?

Sharon, you say “Peter White talked to 8 male “experts” on disability”. Can I ask why you’ve used scare quotes on ‘experts’? Is it related to the quality of what they had to say, or are you suggesting that female commenters would have been inherently better?

SharonJ // Posted 4 August 2011 at 11:46 am

Hello All,

R: The reason I used quote marks on “experts” was because some were people talking about personal experience rather than academics or trained people. They are experts, in a way, but not of the traditional type. No disrespect is meant to them, as, especially in disability, personal experience is very valuable. I don’t believe female guests would be better in the information, but a balance would be more valuable for two reasons: first, we could know if the experience of disabled women is different in anyway and, second, disabled women could listen and understand that there are people like them out there.

Gokudo: welcome to feminism! I completely agree that there may be a conditioned response for people to prefer male voices. I haven’t done the research but I can see if I cam pull some out of somewhere (mental note) . Now, radio stations do live and die by listening figures, but the BBC is incredibly lucky, in that respect. It is paid for by our license fee and therefore is not bound by what the advertisers want. They can push the boundaries of broadcasting much more easily, and, in many ways they do. So the “people would rather listen to men” argument shouldn’t wash, if only because the Been can shrug and say “dont like it? Other stations are available” :-)

Rich: you’re right. One day is not enough. I would love someone to fund me so I could do the work properly. But are you offering to fund me? I will do a second day at some point to check that it wasn’t a fluke, but I honestly don’t “want” the result to be anything. I did the audit because I heard an imbalance and wanted to investigate it further, not because I wanted to prove that the BBC is mysoginistic. If the results were different, different questions could have arisen, which are no less interesting. But these results are everywhere. UK Feminista did some research into gender make up of bands at festivals last year. The results were just as disappointing as these. The data may be flawed (but you’ll notice I address that at the beginning of the piece) but that doesn’t mean the problem does not exist. Feel free to close your eyes to it, but it is society as a whole that suffers as a result.

Jem M // Posted 4 August 2011 at 1:22 pm

@Rich I think you make some valid points. A longer survey would definitely be a good idea, I don’t think a year is necessary, but a month would probably cover most of the variations in programming. Sharon listed 3 caveats at the beginning of her write-up which respond to the majority of your concerns, she acknowledges that the audit is not perfect and was a snap shot. She was making no claims other than presenting her findings and asking some valid questions. If people choose to take this as some sort of “fact” (although, what of I’m not sure) then that will be down to them not reading the entire blog. I also ask what would you have her do? Not bother with the audit at all? Not post her results until she’s done it for a year (in her own free time I might add)? Does a day with such significant disparity in gender representation not raise some questions? If someone just happened to tune in, on that day, then they would have seen women represent just 28% of contributors, is that something we should find acceptable?

@Gokudo, I’ve heard of similar research, I think it’s quite an interesting area and if you follow it through you get into the whole nature v nurture debate. How much of these differences are pre-programmed, how many are culturally created? I personally suspect it’s a chicken and egg situation and cultural. Because we have fewer women, we react when those figures appear different from the ‘norm’. But ‘norms’ can be changed.

sian norris // Posted 4 August 2011 at 3:32 pm

we’ve been looking a lot at what we call ‘where are the women’ at Bristol Feminist Network, looking at where women are absent in media representation and how they are present when they are present (if that makes sense!). You can see our research at http://www.rowitm.org

SJ // Posted 4 August 2011 at 6:42 pm

Sian: That all looks bloomin’ amazing! Feel free to use my research in with yours, if it helps. I can’t believe I didn’t know about that resource. I am about to tweet it far and wide. :-)

Gokudo // Posted 4 August 2011 at 9:12 pm

Hi Sharon,

How about asking for volunteers to help? It would be quite easy to set up a group who can listen to/watch specific programmes over a period of time and monitor the prescence of males and females. This would be a good way of collating the information and would be unbiased and most importantly, replicable. I would be delighted to offer my help and I’m sure many who visit this site would be more than happy to volunteer too.

A shared online spreadsheet could be completed upon viewing, volunteers could select their programmes maybe ones they already watch and pop the info into the spreadsheet next time they’re online. Then with technical wizardry you can present the info in an easy to read diagram. Check out Information is Beautiful for ideas.

SETI@home set up a project asking for volunteers from all over the globe to work together to solve problems and sort through data because it was beyond their technological capabilities. WOTAR@home could be ours. Women on Telly and Radio.

Gokudo // Posted 4 August 2011 at 9:13 pm

Or you could just visit Sian’s website where they’ve set up the same thing…d’oh! Why didn’t I click on that first?

sian norris // Posted 5 August 2011 at 4:24 pm

cool, thank you!

we are really trying to kickstart the project again this year so watch this space for more research. we have been constantly shocked by the sheer absence of women in popular culture and in our media. it’s everywhere. this piece of research by UK feminista is also v interesting (and might interest Richard as it is much wider ranging)


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