T-Shirts for Men, Bikini Tops for Women

John Osmond reports from today’s IWA conference on ways that women are represented in the media and politics

A call for a Presiding Officer’s Conference on gender balance in the National Assembly was made today by Professor Laura McAllister, Chair of IWA Women at a Cardiff conference on Making a Mark: Women, the Media and Politics in Wales. Professor McAllister, who teaches politics at Liverpool University, said, “Gender is not woven into our new democracy.” Despite some eye-catching achievements for women’s representation in the first three terms of the Assembly, the advances were not culturally embedded and could well retreat following the May 2011 election.

She thought the Presiding Officer Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas would respond positively to the idea of a Conference so long as there was a cross-party consensus backing one. The agenda would be to find ways of influencing the parties to take the importance of women’s representation more seriously in a situation where, when there was a choice, party affiliation invariably trumped gender. Ways should be found for constructing different definitions of success in politics that could, in turn, influence the way the media portrays political debate and conflict. As Professor McAllister put it:

· To be controversial is not always important or newsworthy.

· Rows and arguments are not always worth reporting.

· There is news to be found in building consensus.

Professor McAllister said appearance and age were endemic in the way the press and media reported the activities of female politicians. “When Kirsty Williams became leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly last year she was subjected to a hideous campaign of trivialisation, including remarks that she dressed like an air hostess,” she said.

“During the coalition negotiations in the wake of the 2007 Assembly election, four female members of the Plaid Group who indicated their strong preference for a deal with Labour were subjected to a host of derogatory remarks in the blogosphere, being referred to as lesbians and witches.”

Professor McAllister, who has recently been appointed Chair of the Sports Council for Wales, said sexist attitudes were also rife in the sporting world where women were routinely objectified, trivialised and sexualised. “In media reporting of sport women are three times more likely than men to be referred to by their first names,” she said. In Beach Volley Ball the official Olympic dress code for men was T-shirts, but bikini tops for women.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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