New Left Project co-editor David Wearing speaks to writer and blogger Caroline Criado-Perez about her work combating the under-representation of women in the media.
DW: What is The Women's Room?
CCP: The Women's Room is a database of just under 1,700 (and growing every day) women experts who are available to speak to the media on topics ranging from Astrophysics to Sexuality, and everything in between.
DW: What initially prompted you to set The Women's Room up? Was there are particular incident that made you decide 'enough is enough'?
CCP: It was an issue that had been hovering around at the back of my mind for a while; the media is so powerful and has such an important role to play in shaping our society, so the fact that it was so male dominated was a cause for concern. But the immediate catalyst was the two days in a row at the end of October 2012, when the Today programme ran an all-male panel discussing female issues - to be precise, female bodies - the two topics were breast cancer and teenage girls and their contraception. It felt so patronising and Victorian to have a group of men sitting around and discussing our bodies - and in fact farcical, since John Humphys was reduced to asking one of his male guests to imagine being a woman in order to answer the question. Not only this, but some of the guests weren't qualified to speak even beyond the gender issues - Sir Anthony Seldon was asked about teenage girls and his answers elucidated little other than his ignorance about them and their needs. Ultimately though, John Humphrys threw out the gauntlet to us by claiming that they have tried, but been unable to find a female breast cancer expert; this was such a patently ridiculous claim to make that we decided to call his bluff.
DW: How do the BBC and other broadcasters and media outlets account for their failure to fairly represent women? What do you make of the justitications or excuses that they offer?
CCP: Oh the excuses are endless! Some of them more convincing than others. The main reason that we get given is that women don't want to speak - well that's just rubbish. Of course, because of the society we live in, women tend to be slightly more reticent, since we're brought up to be nice, quiet girls and not to push ourselves forward from the day we're born. I always get irritated by people who tell women just to start being more pushy, because actually research in the job market shows that women are discriminated against when they're pushy. But the problem isn't nearly as bad as the media would have you believe - I just point to the varied range of female voices we have on The Women's Room - it certainly seems like enough women want to be heard that the reticence excuse just isn't going to wash anymore! One of the BBC's favourite excuses is that they "have to reflect society as it is", to which I of course say, great! So we'll be seeing far more women on than the current 8:2 ratio then? Because current levels don't reflect society as it is. But also, the BBC at least as a public broadcaster surely also has a duty to represent its audience, which it's currently failing to do, since women make up the slight majority of the population.
I think the main reason really is a time issue. Researchers are pushed for time and they just don't have the women contacts, so they're just going back to the same voices time and time again. On the other hand, I do also think it's slightly because many still don't really see this as a pressing issue, so they don't spend the time that they do have working on it. The other issue is a more complex one and it's to do with the type of person that the main offenders like the Today programme think they need to speak to. If there's an oil spill, they want to speak to the person accountable, so let's say they want to speak to the head of BP and of course the head of BP is a man, and so the Today programme says they're constricted by that. But why must they speak to the head of BP? We know what he's going to say before he comes on. He's going to obfuscate, evade the question, shirk all responsibility - and John Humphrys is just going to spend his time haranguing him - and as listeners we learn nothing. I think a lot of us would actually find it far more interesting to have a genuine debate with, say, an environmental scientist, and an expert in risk, and maybe a person who lives in the local area - and all these people might be women! So that culture of an obsession with speaking with the "accountable" person (who, let's face it, rarely accepts accountability, or there would be a far higher rate of resignations in public life), is one that we really want to question.
DW: You've set The Women's Room up as a business (with co-founder Catherine Smith). How do its commercial considerations relate to its emancipatory goals? Is the business model simply geared at generating enough revenue to ensure self-sustainability?
CCP: Well to be honest this is more of an aspiration and future plan! At the moment the routine is more I spend money and then I spend some more money! But ultimately yes, I would like to set it up as a business since it's something that deserves my full attention and there is so much more we could be doing with it - though we'll be keeping our plans under wraps for now! Of course we could just apply for funding and that is certainly the first step, but ultimately, if we can find a way to make it sustain itself that would be ideal, since that would enable us to focus our entire attention on the actual issue at hand, rather than chasing funds, which takes away so much energy from projects. I'm really excited by the idea of a social enterprise, which means that profits go back into the cause, rather than into the pockets of shareholders - frankly, I think it's how all businesses should be run!
DW: What challenges have you faced setting up The Women's Room? What advice would you give to left-wing people trying to establish an organisation that can sustain itself commercially?
CCP: The main challenge is finding the time to do everything you want to do! Although as I said I'm not yet in a position to talk about setting up a sustainable social enterprise, my advice to others would be to have patience and not try to do everything at once - that way madness lies, as well as a less effective campaign. Figure out what's the central aim you're trying to achieve and focus on that, adding on other facets gradually - at least that's what we're trying to do! But on the brighter side, the great thing about setting up something that people can believe in is the overwhelming support you will receive from others - we have been totally overwhelmed by the generosity of people coming forward to offer their time - and in fact their money! We had an amazing day in February, where we raised £1500 in a single day towards the building of our soon-to-be-launched website, with the bulk of the amount made up by lots of people donating £10. It was an absolutely incredible day and we felt so humbled to see all these people putting up their own money to help us achieve our goals. It made us even more confident we were doing something good!
Caroline Criado-Perez recently completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is currently studying for a Masters in Gender Studies at LSE. As well as running The Woman’s Room she is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman.
David Wearing is one of the editors of New Left Project.