Why Do We Need Sound Women?

by Fi Glover

As I pedaled furiously to the first ever meeting of Sound Women at Broadcasting House I mused on why we need something like this in our wonderful world of audio, after all this a business that can treat women very well.

Jenni Murray, Sue Macgregor, Helen Boaden, Margherita Taylor, Lauren Laverne, Annie Nightingale, Jo Whiley – the list is long, ladies are not an invisible force. And I’d read the invitation list so I knew that I was on my way to a meeting with even more of the great and the good. All women. But look, within minutes I was certain that Sound Women is very much a needed and wanted thing. I can give you three factoids to back this up.

Factoid 1 – although women working in radio are better qualified than men (73% have degrees, compared to 60% of men) they won’t be paid as much, on average women earn £2,200 less each year. If you pop this into a compound interest calculator and assume that the average career is 25 years in the making, that means women are losing out to the tune of more than £90,000 over the course of their working life. I don’t know about you but I’d quite like that money in my own wallet.

Factoid 2 – There was a theory 20 years ago that men didn’t like to hear women’s voices on air during the day – I say theory but I don’t recall anyone ever proving it to be true. Surely no one could hold such an arcane view now? But even with no clear audience research proving that to be the case, it’s a myth still being put about, presumably by men fumbling in their wallets for their Spearmint Rhino Loyalty Club Cards.

Factoid 3 – and this is the one that really did it for me. It came from one of the youngest women at the meeting who said she didn’t know whether she needed to act like her male colleagues do in the pub after work in order to stay in the work crowd – Crikey Moses that took me back. I started out at a radio station where in the studio women were completely equal. Or so we thought. But something happened on the ten metre walk from the back door to the pub. The blokes started compiling lists about the newsroom staff called things like ‘top ten girls in poshest order’, the inevitable ‘who would you like to sleep’ with, and ‘girls with most upturned breasts’. And what did I do back then? Did I grab my Germaine Greer Clutch Bag and huff off? No of course I didn’t – I thought I had to stay and sit through it, and even ape their behaviour. I would have been so heartened to belong to a group within the industry that danced round a different Maypole.

It’s basic stuff isn’t it – If we expect our radio stations and our shows to be listened to and enjoyed by women then we really should expect our industry to have the same mores.

And look, by the end of the first meeting we had got so much done. I love an organisation that really works. Maria can do things with post-it notes that no one else can. It will help us get where we want to be.

We have plans for mentoring schemes, we would like to commission some research to find out more about that pay gap, we want to know why many women find it hard to stay in the business after the age of 35 (more men manage it than their female counterparts and only 17 per cent of women ever make it right to the top at board level). And we might even get some T shirts printed with the slogan We Heart Chris Patten as it would appear that he has recognized many of these problems himself – it’s heartening to see that he is not afraid of shouting about it.

Sound Women’s membership is dynamic and forward thinking, its aims are clear and its embrace is warm. I pedaled home feeling heartened to be part of something good.

It’s a bit strange to have a woman talking to you…

I’d like to share with you a very old report I came across this week, about the lack of female radio DJs…

It’s an academic report from 1993.  Nearly 20 years ago.  A time when men ruled the airwaves.  Annie Nightingale and Janice Long had got toeholds at BBC Radio 1, but they were very much the exceptions.

This report – with the snappy title ‘Justifying injustice: broadcasters’ accounts of inequality in radio’ – is a snapshot into how the broadcasters of the time saw the radio landscape.  All-male broadcasting?  Perfectly normal, say the five male DJs and Programme Controllers questioned, and their reasons were as follows.

1.  Women don’t apply

One explained “I get all the applications to come in here.  We get about 400 a year.  We’ve had none from women in the last year.  Not one to be a presenter.”  REALLY?  Not one?  When pushed further on this others accounted for it by saying “there just aren’t many who are interested in doing it” and the standout “It’s a man’s world… so they’re picked on if they are here.”   I can’t imagine why wannabe female DJs  stopped asking.

2.  The audience don’t like it

With my personal favourite – “It’s a bit strange to have a woman talking to you”.  Jane Garvey, please take note.  You’re frightening the audience…  More than one of the men questioned cites research that apparently proved “men prefer to listen to a man’s voice”, and that “women like hearing men on the radio because they’re used to it”.   Now I have been quoted this research several times over the years.  I used to think it might be an urban myth, but now know it DID genuinely exist because I’ve met a woman who’s seen it.  If anyone has a copy in their attic please send it our way.

3.  Women are “not as advanced”

The skills required, particularly technical skills, knowing about music and having a personality “are just not as advanced as far as women are concerned as with men”.  I think Jo Miflin, top BBC sound engineer might have something to say about that.  Not to mention music boffin Lauren Laverne.  Or the personality-full Vanessa Feltz.

4.  Women’s voices

Which are apparently too “shrill”, too “dusky” and just plain wrong.  In other words, even if women do know their music and have something interesting to say, and can manage all those tricky buttons on the studio desk, their very voices will cause listeners to switch off.  Can anyone see Gene Hunt?

OK, I know, this research is 20 years out of date.  Should we just laugh at the views expressed in it, and treat it as the museum piece it is?  Maybe.  The thing is, I was at Radio 1 in 1993, and I’m really not THAT old.  So at least some of the people with those attitudes are still working in the industry today, hiring and firing.  How much have they changed?

It would be fascinating to do the same exercise in 2011.  Obviously in terms of the number of women on air things have improved phenomenally.  We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the women who fought to get their own shows.  But there is still an imbalance, and yet more work to be done.

Women don’t apply?   Check your inbox.  We’re downstairs, trying to get past reception…

Justifying injustice: broadcasters’ accounts of inequality in radio was written by Professor Rosalind Gill, now at King’s College London, and was sent to Sound Women by Phd student Tamsyn Dent.