No more turnip fields!

(Originally published in Catalan on

The Catalan media has a woman problem. A big one. It’s not just that women are underrepresented in the Catalan press and broadcast media, they (we) are often completely silenced. All-male TV and radio panels are a regular occurrence, and a newspaper like El Punt Avui can go days without featuring a single opinion article written by a woman. The infographic below from Joan Vallve‘s excellent analysis of Catalan TV and radio debates in 2012 gives an idea of how extreme the situation is. The percentage on the right represents the number of programmes in which not a single woman participated.

grafics-cosa-d-homesWhy does this matter? Firstly, many Catalan media outlets receive public funding, and there’s no reason why female tax-payers should have to fund sexist, male-dominated institutions. Secondly, it matters because, if we start from the assumption that knowledge and talent are evenly distributed between the genders, we can assume that there are a lot of mediocre men drowning out the voices of talented women in Catalan public life. And thirdly, the merits of individuals aside, the inclusion of diverse perspectives brings a wider range of experiences and ideas to the overall discussion, and should, therefore, be valued for its own sake.

Unfortunately, the position of women in the media and public debate in Catalonia and Spain is lagging behind that of other countries. Although the professionals of the ADPC (the Association of Women Journalists of Catalonia) have been fighting for equality for years (for example, creating a database of female experts as a resource for journalists), it is only recently that the general public have started to act. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Liz Castro and I (both immigrants) have been among the most active of those denouncing the current state of affairs on Twitter. Liz first tweeted the hashtag #OnSónLesDones (where are the women?) back in December 2013, and I was a lone voice criticising the succession of all-male panels at the Catalan Political Communications Conference in April last year.

It’s surprising, given that Catalonia and Spain are home to active feminist movements and they lead the world in terms of the proportion of elected political positions held by women. Happily, recent months have seen the disparate critical voices start to link up and organize online through hashtags like #OnSónLesDones and #ProuCampsDeNaps (no more turnip fields – or ‘sausage parties’, as we’d say in English). Now seems like the ideal time to consider what this nascent movement can learn from the experience of its counterparts in other countries.

Catalonia and the rest of Spain are still facing the first hurdle of what will be a long battle for a representative media: putting an end to the media’s exclusion of women and getting at least one female voice included in every TV and radio debate and newspaper comment section. In Catalonia, criticisms of the exclusion of women are still met with defensiveness and a dismissal of ‘quotas’, rather than contrition.

In contrast, in the UK and USA, it is now widely accepted that, intentionally or not, an implicit and unfair ‘quota’ system is being used that favours men if no women are at the table. Hosting all-male debates is increasingly seen as a risk and an invitation to criticism, particularly on social media where there are accounts like @NoWomenSpeakers that are dedicated to tweeting about the issue.

In the UK, the BBC has been under pressure to improve the representation of women on TV and radio for years. It has taken a while, but the BBC now accepts that it has a responsibility to act as a counterbalance to structural inequalities, rather than to just ‘reflect’ power structures as they are. Last year, its Director of Television, Danny Cohen, put an end to all-male comedy panel shows, saying that it was ‘not acceptable’ to produce a show with no women. The BBC’s flagship political debate programme, Question Time, manages to compensate rather well for the paltry representation of women in British public life: 44% of its panelists are women, even though women make up only 23% of parliament and an even smaller proportion of the cabinet. Achieving this level of representation in a male-dominated political system means changing invitation practices, since asking each party to send a representative of its choice will result is almost guaranteed to produce an all-male panel. It also means defining ‘expertise’ in a broader way, beyond the holding of high office, and being more imaginative in thinking about who can bring interesting ideas to the programme; Question Time invites female academics, journalists, businesswomen, bloggers and activists to balance out the male MPs and ministers.

Diversity beyond gender In the UK and the USA, closer attention is now also being paid to the issue of age and ethnic diversity in the media. In the UK, there is a particular concern about the disappearance of women from TV screens once they reach a certain age, which was reinforced when the BBC presenter Miriam O’Reilly won her case for age discrimination in 2011. The debate on ethnic diversity is particularly active and complex in the USA, where all-white panels are subject to just as much criticism as all-male ones. In Catalonia, where mass immigration is a relatively new phenomenon, the debate on the media representation of the 15% of the population of foreign origin has barely begun. It is left to Diverscat, a small group of journalists and activists, to encourages journalists and producers to reflect the diversity of the country in their work. Activists pushing for gender equality in Catalonia shouldn’t forget the other diversity deficits in the current media landscape. The power of the audience

What if producers, editors and conference organizers fail to act? Is there anything the rest of us can do to provoke change? In November 2011, a group of high-profile women wrote a letter to the Guardian vowing to boycott all-male public policy debates. However, it soon became clear that the real power is in the hands of the men invited to participate in such events, rather than the women in the audience. Cord Jefferson suggested the idea that white men boycott panels without women or minorities the same year, but it wasn’t until 2013, after a controversial article by Rebecca Rosen on tech industry panels, that people started to act. Similar initiatives soon sprang up in the male-dominated fields of security, and international relations. Thanks to Clásicas y Modernas, Spain now has its own campaign, which is asking men to sign up to a boycott of all-male debates as an act of solidarity during March 2015, the month of International Women’s Day.

The internet also allows everyone, men and women, to have a small influence on the national and global conversation. As well as tweeting our disapproval at newspapers and broadcasters that exclude women, we can choose whose voices we amplify online. Debates on social media too often reproduce and reinforce traditional power structures, rather than challenging them. Two years ago, influential tech writer, Anil Dash, realised that he disproportionately followed and interacted with men on Twitter. He decided to spend a year only retweeting women, using the power and influence of his huge twitter following to promote them. By thinking about who we follow and retweet, everyone, even the lowliest tweeter, can help to make sure women’s voices are heard. That’s why, this March, I’m going to follow Dash’s example and only retweet the witty, insightful words of my fellow women tweeps. Who’s with me?