In My Opinion: Courtnay McLeod: Being a feminist in a media world

I GUESS I am a feminist, lots of people say so. I am always unsure if this is a compliment or an insult. What does a feminist look like in today’s newsroom or media office? Actually, never mind what she looks like, what does she sound like?

If being a feminist comes from experiencing sexism in the workplace, then I am certainly a candidate.

Notable highlights include being asked to remove my top in a production meeting and being told my forehead was too high and my nose to broad when I asked for feedback on my presenting skills.

These experiences are ‘ten a penny’, common to the point that they don’t surprise anyone, and only add to a narrative that suggests sexist comments are par for the course in media jobs. Lighten up ladies, how bad can a few jokes and jibes be?

But workplace banter aside, the serious edge is that the media’s focus on appearance is disproportionately tough on women.

At a basic level, the problem is simple: over time, men look wiser and older, whilst women look older and wiser. It’s a subtle difference, but damning.

This type of conversation too quickly becomes male versus female, when the dynamics are far more complicated. The truth is that being a feminist isn’t simply about being pro-women, or about being anti-men, it’s about changing a culture to benefit everyone, every employer, every audience.

For so long we have talked about how women can succeed in a man’s world, but maybe, just maybe, the very idea of the world being male is shifting. After all, it is predicted that, by 2025, over 60 per cent of graduates in ‘developed countries’ will be women. This makes fitting into a ‘man’s world’ much less of a focus. The world is changing.

But it isn’t changing quickly enough, particularly in relation to equal pay. So what should we do? We could laugh at sexism in the hope it will hurry up and go away. We could confront it and be seen as lacking a sense of humour. Or we could start discussing it, properly.

And there seems to be a trend towards this. It is telling there have been relatively high-profile moves within the BBC to appoint more ‘mature’ female presenters, such as Fiona Armstrong. But let’s be realistic – ‘on screen’ is only ‘on the surface’. The BBC, more than most and more than ever, need women contributing at a senior level and making executive decisions.

Research after research shows that women bring more than lip gloss to the boardroom – mixed gender teams yield better results, yet top management remains dominated by men.

Unilever is perhaps the most talked-about example of a company that recognises men and women working together at senior levels increases productivity, creativity and crucially profit. This logic has to apply to media employers, particularly because they often have a female bias in their audiences.

Outside the workplace there seems to be an increasingly healthy debate on sexism, which is partly because social media allows it to be spontaneous. A recent example would be the Twitter thread highlighting the extent of sexism in the UK – triggered by an article emphasising how awful it was abroad.

So, there are still mountains to climb, and glass ceilings to crack, but the future might look just a little more promising. So girls, let’s not get our knickers in a proverbial twist. I am optimistic; an optimistic feminist (with a high forehead and broad nose).

If women can avoid the temptation of acting like men to succeed, then they have a huge amount to bring to the studio, newsroom, production meeting and boardroom. The next wave of feminism has to be less about challenging men, less about challenging each other, and more about being ourselves – holding our nerve.

Courtnay McLeod is director of the Scottish Media Academy and regularly teaches broadcast journalism at various universities and colleges, with special interests in media convergence issues and broadcast writing styles.