Tuesday, April 03, 2007

To Be Taken Seriously. Or More On WAM 2007.

WAM 2007 stands for this year's conference on Women, Action and Media, which took place last weekend. I was there under my human disguise, having fun and eating enormous amounts of free food. Mmm. But I also learned a lot about the problems women still face in getting their concerns addressed in the media and also in getting themselves hired and promoted by the media moguls.

To be sure, this was a conference for progressive and liberal women and their causes, but I suspect that many of the complaints might not look that different if a bunch of conservative women got together over the same issues.

And what are the complaints? The two major ones, in my view, are first how to get women's issues taken seriously in the media, and, second, how to get women themselves taken seriously. Even the term "women's issues" makes me feel slightly nauseous, because it conveys something like a packet of feminine napkins held under the limelight, something homogeneous, something slightly embarrassing and something definitely not of any concern to men.

Yet women's issues are everybody's issues, given that there are women all over the place, and given that many of the issues individual women struggle with are caused by complex interactions with others and by the laws and rules of the society in general. Neither are women's issues homogeneous but differ depending on the group of women we look at. Women of color have somewhat different concerns than white women, young women and old women have concerns which only partly overlap, lesbian women face yet different types of problems and so do disabled women, to give just a few examples.

So how do we get these issues out into the public discussion? Technology offers some hope, because the Internet has made citizen-journalism a feasible endeavor for all but the poorest among us. Learning how to deal with the conventional media, how to speak its tongue and how to get attention by careful presenting of the issues can also help. Networking (such as through the WAM conferences) helps. A lot. But what would help even more is money, because if you have enough money you can make people take your concerns seriously.

Several sessions at the conference also addressed the question how to take women seriously as journalists, writers or pundits. Much useful advice on self-presentation and research was doled out and many depressing studies were discussed. Women in journalism suffer from the leaky pipeline problem. The "leaky pipeline" refers to the old argument that questions of female underrepresentation would be solved in all kinds of industries once enough women had gone through the pipeline by working themselves up from the factory floor to the managerial positions (or their equivalents in various industries) and by accumulating the necessary expertise. This argument sounded very good in the 1970s when women were first beginning to participate in the labor markets in larger numbers but doesn't sound quite as good today, given that, say, schools of journalism already produce the same number of female and male journalists. Yet the very best jobs are overwhelmingly male.

So we say that the pipeline leaks. Whether the leak is caused by women "opting-out" because of the difficulties of managing both family responsibilities and challenging work schedules or whether the leak is at least partly caused by something more subtle and having to do with the way people judge authority isn't clear. But I found it an omen that after leaving the conference on Sunday I came across an article from 2002 which talked about some of the same points we had just debated:

According to Gerhard Sonnert, a sociologist of science at Harvard University who published a large-scale study on gender and science in 1995, women are often put off by the combative style that's rewarded in scientific research, as well as the emphasis on self-promotion. "There's an accepted language of science that has entered into the folklore and become the field," Blackburn says. "Women don't necessarily speak that exact same language, which is not to say that the language they use is not as good. It is. But all those subtle ways women present things that are different from men, even their tone of voice, play into how what they're presenting is accepted, its authority." What's more, women who do take on an aggressive style are often labeled "difficult."

This quote refers to science but very similar concerns are at work even in the blogosphere. One argument that crops up whenever we get one of those "Where are all the women bloggers" episodes is that women don't like the rough-and-tumble of arguing about politics. Many women do, in fact, but not writing aggressively does not mean that one isn't participating in the debate. Still, this is an interesting topic worth more discussion.

I see that my depressive aspect took over most of this post. Before I end it I should note that the mood was upbeat and optimistic and that much good work has already been completed. And the apple Danish was out of this world.