Greater Gender Balance Equals Greater Diversity? Well, yes, Rachel Smalley, but only in relation to gender - a factor which in no way guarantees a diversity of viewpoints. And it is, surely, the messages which are carried on the nation’s airwaves that matter most – not the gender of the broadcasters who carry them?
IT WAS ONE of the most “respectable” of the Suffragette arguments. Give women the vote. Allow them to stand for Parliament. Make them ministers – even prime ministers – and society will be transformed. The mere presence of women in the halls of power (respectable women, that is, because powerful men and disreputable women have never been far apart) can only soften the raw masculinity of the political process and usher in a more caring, a more productive, and – most importantly – a more peaceful world.
All nonsense, of course. No sooner was war declared in 1914, than the leader of the British suffragettes, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her ambitious eldest daughter, Christabel, were up on the nearest platform, loudly urging every able-bodied British male to enlist in the great fight for King and Country. From chaining themselves to railings, the Pankhurst’s impressive army of suffragettes were swiftly redeployed to handing out white feathers to any young man not in uniform. When it came to mass slaughter, the female of the species was determined to prove herself no less deadly than the male.
Or, even deadlier. Because, once again, when women did become prime ministers (be it Israel’s Golda Meir, India’s Indira Ghandi, or Britain’s Margaret Thatcher) they did not show themselves to be one whit less willing to unleash fire and death than their male counterparts. (As anyone familiar with the careers of Boudica, Isabella de Valois, Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great could confidently have predicted!)
Old news, one might say. But, one would be wrong. Because no matter how many times it is knocked down, the argument that women, simply by being there, or by virtue of some magical essence peculiar to the female of the species, will make an important difference to the way everything from corporations to cabinets are run, keeps popping right back up again.
The argument’s latest protagonist is the broadcaster Rachel Smalley, who used the occasion of John Campbell’s appointment as Radio NZ-National’s new drive show host to lament the preponderance of male voices on prime time radio.
“The perspective a male host takes into an interview is often very, very different to that of a woman”, wrote Smalley, in her column on the Newstalk-ZB webpage. “The perspective any of these hosts take into an interview about domestic abuse, sexual violence, or funding cuts to women’s refuge will be very different to mine.”
Really? I would have thought that, on any issue, a journalist’s perspective – male or female – would be determined by their willingness to set aside stereotypes and prejudices and allow their professional judgement to be guided by the evidence on offer. And isn’t their personal response to domestic abuse and sexual violence as likely to be determined by their capacity for empathy as their gender? After all, it was a male, David Cunliffe, who told a women’s refuge conference that the statistics relating to sexual violence made him “sorry to be a man”. By no means all the people who pilloried him for that comment were men.
Indeed, Smalley’s assumptions regarding the positions a male journalist is likely to take on everything from paid parental leave, to aid for victims of the wars in the Middle East, might, themselves, be characterised as examples of sexist prejudice. Do fathers have no stake in the quantum of paid parental leave? Do journalists like Robert Fisk, and our own Jon Stephenson, not risk their lives to bring the stories of the victims of war to the world?
Smalley’s argument would have been a great deal stronger if she had couched it in terms of ideological, rather than gender, diversity. The problem with prime-time radio in New Zealand is not a preponderance of male voices, but of right-wing voices. It is, surely, the messages which are carried on the nation’s airwaves that matter most – not the gender of the broadcasters who carry them?
Mary Wilson (the broadcaster John Campbell is about to replace on week-nights between 5:00 and 7:00pm) will soon be playing a major role in shaping the messages coming out of Radio NZ-National. Reality TV suprema, Julie Christie, already plays a very similar role at MediaWorks.
Now, ask yourself: Are the radically different messages carried by these women’s respective networks more likely to be the product of their makers’ gender – or their politics?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 10 August 2015.