A typical night on the ABC's <i>Q & A</i>: Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten; Opposition Senate Leader Eric Abetz; Anna Rose from the Youth Climate Coalition; Judge Felicity Hampel from the Victorian County Court; and John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs together with host Tony Jones.

A typical night on the ABC's Q & A: Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten; Opposition Senate Leader Eric Abetz; Anna Rose from the Youth Climate Coalition; Judge Felicity Hampel from the Victorian County Court; and John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs together with host Tony Jones.

On the whole, people are willing to ignore the facts of discrimination in favour of how something feels to them. But as my therapist helpfully reminded me yesterday, thoughts and feelings are not facts. And the bare boned facts show that society and culture remains decidedly unequal in terms of female representation, and respect for women’s contribution and equality.

If the media is a portal through which we see the world, how does the conspicuous absence of women and their voices skew how people experience the world around them? Across the board, the facts show that women are significantly absent from that mirror the media reflects back onto society. Women operating in the public space are constantly reminded that their presence is a privilege, not a right - and that privilege can be taken away any time they break the rules.

Consider our commercial talkback networks. Until recently, there was only one woman in the whole of the country hosting a weekday solo commercial talkback show. Now there are two - Belinda Heggen in Adelaide (who replaced Amanda Blair) and 6PR’s Jane Marwick in Perth. I looked at 8 of the largest commercial talkback stations around Australia and found that of 140 presenters whose identities were promoted across all the networks' websites, only 17 were women. 17 lone female voices up against 123 men, on the nation's airwaves week after week.

Leigh Sales on the set of the <i>7.30</i>.

Leigh Sales on the set of the 7.30.

It should also be noted that the majority of women ‘allowed’ to host talkback radio do so for weekend shows about gardening or entertainment or, bizarrely, as psychics. Many of them have male co-hosts.  And because on-air jobs for women in talkback radio are so scarce, few complain. Women are expected to be satisfied with having slivers of the pie saved for us - the subtext being that if the system were really sexist, we wouldn’t be allowed pie at all. So because we are, the unequal representation that exists must just be down to the fact that we’re not trying hard enough or, as I have also heard too many times to count, because people don’t like listening to women’s voices or anything we have to say. I spoke with Ben Fordham on his 2GB Drive show a few weeks ago about this very thing and received an email afterwards - from a woman - telling me that people didn’t want to listen to women on radio because they were either boring or know-it-all, and their voices were monotonous. It bears pointing out that there is no research or data to support the idea that people on the whole don't enjoy listening to women speak - yet these excuses continue to be thrown up by broadcasting management. How long does a feeling need to be expressed before it is assumed as fact?

Melbourne based independent newspaper The King’s Tribune conducted a study last year of the gender disparity in print media. Author Chrys Stevenson drew her data from weekday editions over the fortnight of Thursday, 25 October to Wednesday, 7 November, and looked solely at front pages as a ‘window’ into the papers’ preoccupations and concerns. Eight of the nation’s leading newspapers were considered: The Australian, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, the Australian Financial Review, the Courier-Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun. The results confirmed figures found in similar studies in Britain and the US. That of 287 bylines across 80 front pages, 70% belonged to men and only 30% to women. Of the 287 stories Stevenson read, only 22% of quotes sought came from women, meaning 78% of those people presented to the public as experts in their fields were men. The Global Media Monitoring Project's 2005 study ‘Who Makes The News’ reported similar findings.

All of these results demonstrate that women participate in public life at levels of 20 - 30%. Despite this minimal representation, we’re expected to work harder and toe the line more in order to keep our positions. A woman I know who co-hosts a commercial FM breakfast show in a capital city was asked just this year by management not to mention her age on air because ‘they don’t like acknowledging women over the age of 30’.  Another woman, working for a public TV broadcaster with progressive policies, told me the desired TV anchor formula pushed at her network is older man, young woman. Yet another woman working at a major commercial talkback station recounted the time a prominent political figure came in to do an interview and openly complained about the anchorwoman presenting the news on the station's TV. 'Women can't deliver the news', he argued. 'It's a bloody joke.'

Tracey Spicer

Tracey Spicer Photo: Natalie Pilato

Tracey Spicer’s Dear Mr Sexist was a call out of the years of sexist management she’d endured as a journalist. She believes the industry has changed, but not dramatically. In Sydney, there are no female news directors in commercial TV. And here in 2013, there are still no female editors of a major metropolitan daily newspaper. This translates directly to a lack of equality in the advancement of women in the media - not their voices, not their value and certainly not their visibility. Spicer has this pertinent reminder: “When I finished my Communications degree in 1987, 95% of the journalism graduates were women. If it was a meritocracy, many of these women would have risen to management positions by now. They have not.”

Advertising executive and writer Jane Caro has to date been the only female Chair of Judges for the Australasian Writers and Art Directors Awards. In her capacity as Chair, she broke with tradition and tried to get as many female judges as possible. In the end, she could only secure 4 out of 10 and was attacked furiously for her efforts by male colleagues. To this day, they’ve never had another female Chair of Judges and if there ARE women on the panel of judges, it's usually only 1 or 2.

The rule of pangender representation dictates that penises must account for more than 50% of the bits present in order to make the experience universally applicable to everyone - so a greater than average percentage of women in attendance on a panel is usually seen as a ‘special event’. An experiment, or a moment in which the girls are allowed some time to shine and talk about 'their stuff'.

But if women suddenly began outnumbering men consistently in newspapers, panels, boards, editorial meetings, commercial talkback stations, expert opinion, senior management and simply in the sheer numbers of people given space and room to speak - in short, if the accepted gender ratio were reversed - there would be a public meltdown. Unfair! would be the catchcry, with people railing against quotas, political correctness and being ‘forced’ to listen to issues that don’t affect everyone. If Q&A, a show on our national broadcaster whose charter dictates that they express equal and fair policies when it comes to gender, suddenly had week after week of three female guests with a female host and only two males (as the opposite routinely occurs) people would tune out in droves. The ABC would be accused of pandering to political correctness, and ruining the format by stacking the panel with shrill, aggressive, squawking voices that have nothing of value to say.

When society internalises the message that there is something so incomplete and foreign about the female gender that it only deserves to contribute to 20-30% of public life, then women learn to shrink in upon themselves rather than expand. They learn to be so grateful for the scraps of attention they are *allowed* to claim that they won't push for more, in case their provisional trial period of being allowed to speak is snatched away and given to a woman who can better hold her tongue. This is a society in which it’s accepted that men set the public agenda and drive it, that they have more things of value to contribute, that their voices are more important and therefore deserve more space and more respect. By giving women less as a rule and teaching them this is all they can expect, they learn to battle ONLY for their spot in the 30%.  

These are significant figures that, while presenting a hugely detrimental view of women’s value, are not likely to be critiqued or questioned by the majority of society. Who counts how many women are quoted in a news article? Who pays attention to those things when they don’t have to? Who hears the absence of women’s voices when they’ve been taught to ignore them?

What happens is that a system in which women don’t take up that extra space is normalised for the majority - so much so that any attempts made to fill more of it even if it still ends up being less than 50% are criticised as domineering or aggressive and attempting to steal from the men.

If this seems like old news, it's because it is. And yet we keep saying it and saying it and saying it, and nothing changes. The same old numbers keep popping up, the same dismissals of women's ability to contribute to and shape society keep occurring, with the same excuses. Women should try harder. There's no inequality. Quotas are unfair. No one wants to listen to women. 

But we need to keep talking about it. We need to keep pushing for change; to stop celebrating the small gains because it just enables industry to delay the big ones. We need to keep using our annoying, shrill, squawking, aggressive voices to demand our 50% - because here in 2013, years after equality was supposedly achieved, the silence has become deafening.

This is an edited version of a lecture Clementine Ford delivered at ANU on Wednesday night to mark International Women's Day celebrations and honour the life of activist Pamela Denoon.

Clementine Ford will be speaking at All About Women, co-presented by Daily Life at the Sydney Opera House on April 7. For tickets, visit  The Sydney Opera House.