Women: know your limits!

May I remind you that there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given the vote?  May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now? When you reflect upon these immense privileges and the length of time during which they have been enjoyed, and the fact that there must be at this moment some two thousand women capable of earning over five hundred a year in one way or another, you will agree that the excuse of lack of opportunity, training, encouragement, leisure, and money no longer holds good.

These words are part of a lecture given by Virginia Woolf at Girton College, Cambridge in 1928.  Here she is tracing the gains women have made during her lifetime, as she reflects upon the obstacles they still face, particularly as writers of fiction.  Eighty-six years after this speech was given, in a country across the other side of the world where women were given the right to vote earlier than their British counterparts, we can also count the gains we have made.  Women in Australia today can vote, can be elected to parliaments, can continue to work when they get married, can drink in public bars, can go to school and university.  These are all rights that have had to be fought for over the past century.  Legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 has also helped to highlight and address inequalities suffered by women and government policies such as the ‘National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools’ and ‘Gender Equity: a Framework for Australian Schools’ seek to address ongoing issues of equity in institutions.  Just recently data from the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) revealed that in 2013 ‘the median ATAR for females was 71.00 whereas the median ATAR for males was 67.00’.  And yet, as Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, noted in a speech to mark a hundred years of International Women’s Day in 2011, ‘there is still much to do’.

At times these achievements – although worth celebrating – can mask underlying issues of inequality.  To illustrate one of the subtle ways that women continue to be excluded and underrepresented I am going to examine a small survey of writers in one prominent Australian newspaper: the Age.  Here, like Virginia Woolf’s exploration of women and fiction, I am conducting an investigation into women and opinion writing.

Over the course of 34 days I have recorded the number of women and men writers in the pages variously titled ‘Comment’, ‘Opinion’ and ‘Forum’ (depending on the day of the week) in the Age.  The beginning of my survey coincided with the time in which ATAR results were soon to be released (mid December 2013) and ended around the time that university places were being offered (mid January 2014).

My survey suggests that women are significantly less represented as comment writers than their male peers.  Over the 34-day period that I surveyed, there were eight days that contained only male writers and no days in which there were only female writers on these pages.  There were four days in which the number of male and female writers was even; that is, two articles were written by men and two by women.  There were four days when there were more female writers than male writers.  On one of these days, two of the female writers were writing about what might be considered ‘women’s issues’ (women’s sport and female prostitution).  The other twenty-five days male writers outnumbered female writers to various ratios (3:0, 2:1, 3:2, 4:1, 3:1, 3:2, 4:0, 5:0).  On one occasion one of the articles by a female writer was reprinted from US-based Bloomberg news.  The results of the survey are recorded in the graph below, indicating the number of times each ratio occurred throughout the 34-day survey period.  This shows that the ratio of two male writers to one female writer occurred the most, 12 times, while a number of other configurations occurred only once: three female to one male; four male to one female, four male to zero female and five male to zero female writers.

figure one

Figure One: Occurrence of male and female writers in 34-day survey.

The following graph (Figure Two) shows the total number of male and female writers on the comment pages of the Age for the duration of the survey: 82 males and 38 females.  There were less than half the number of females to males writing throughout this period.


Figure Two: Total number of male and female writers in 34-day survey.

The results of this small survey (which are mirrored in more substantial research carried out in the UK context), I suggest, gives insight into some of the structural inequalities that confront women.  It illustrates the way in which certain groups of people are excluded, often subtly, from particular spaces (and here I focus only on gender but do not want to discount issues of race and class also, which intersect with issues of gender and create further inequalities).   The lack of women writers on these pages has the effect of implying that women are less capable of sharing an opinion or commenting on important issues.  A comedy sketch by Harry Enfield – from which this article takes its title – makes light of this, suggesting women should refrain from entering debate with men as their brains do not cope with too much education.  They should instead be pretty and sweet and fragile.  The sketch is set historically – perhaps in the 1950s or 60s – and we laugh at it because it seems absurd.  The absurdity then makes it seem distant and outdated.  If we put this sketch alongside my analysis of the Age, however, it seems frighteningly current.  This image of female incapacity is reinforced by comments made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, then Opposition Leader, and quoted by Julia Gillard in her famous misogyny speech in 2012: ‘What if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?’.  Other public displays that deny women voice and ridicule or exclude their contributes to public discourse, such as the case of Kate Ellis on Q&A in 2012 – written about eloquently by Ben Pobjie – contribute to a picture of women similar to that depicted in Harry Enfield’s sketch. Comments made by people in power, public performances broadcast on national television and trends within established and well-read newspapers such as the Age, work to reinforce and underpin prejudices in ways that are not readily noticeable.  And this is how, I suggest, inequalities become masked and hidden.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Sophie Rudolph is a Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her teaching and research interests encompass the sociology and history of education with a particular focus on Indigenous-settler relations and racism in education. She is a settler living and working on the lands of the Kulin Nation.

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  1. Hi Sophie,

    I was hoping you’d mention that Fairfax ghettoises many female writers in its ‘Daily Life’ section. These are mainly professional op-ed writers who also contribute to other publications, and they are still being published by Fairfax. But at that organisation, women writing op-eds (especially on social and cultural matters) don’t only appear in the regular op-ed pages.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Daily Life. As a woman and a feminist I am frequently embarrassed by Daily Life articles which are relentlessly superficial, painfully inarticulate, thoughtless, careless and barely edited. I would greatly prefer if Fairfax identified articles as belonging to Daily Life before I click on them as I wouldn’t bother.

      Not every female op-ed writer is consigned to the Daily Life pages. However, every female op-ed writer who offers nothing nothing more than vague shrieky protests against the oppressive patriarchy is. Daily Life writers offer a very standard line, which does not explore our ability or responsibility to solve our own problems. They also give equal importance to shrieking about being offended by Justin Timberlake’s dress sense as they do to abortion rights, so it’s very hard to take them seriously.

      Secondly, the interesting thing about Daily Life is that it censors out reasonable, critical comments at moderation. Dissenting or critical comments are not allowed.

  2. Thanks for this piece, Sophie. I agree with Mel’s comment above (websites and newspapers do seem to segregate male and female writers in different areas sometimes) and I would be interested in an exploration of the different subjects women writers tend to focus on; I have read some articles which suggest there is substantial pressure placed on female writers to be more ‘personal’ in their writing (eg this http://velamag.com/blog/its-not-personal/)

  3. I wouldn’t call this bias ‘masked and hidden’; it strikes me as obvious. However perhaps not to some people, and those numbers are useful. I think the photographs of journalists on the front page are quite telling, too.

    Also, I want some of whatever the woman in the illustration is on. Pupils like poppy seeds.

  4. Evidently, she’s on 1950s domesticity, mainlined by 1950s depictions of femininity, i.e., the housewife ideal, whose place is in the home, not the world, and so she’s all dreamily pretty and dizzy at the wonders of the masculine world outside the home, the energy of men, their looks and achievements, and she’s as blue-eyed, red-lipped, fair-haired and white-teethed as you can possibly get, to boot.

    You still want some of that? Feeling uncritically nostalgic?

    You wouldn’t be alone if you did.

    • I think she’s probably been at the mega cocktails. So yes, thank you, I would still like some of that.

      Don’t assume that a lack of solemnity means that someone is uncritical, my dear Dirk.

      Some of us prefer wee jokey wrinkles to intellectual Fabulon.

  5. yes, a before shot of all the peggy sue’s and betty draper’s who dreamt of marrying the first hunk they fell in love with … now for the after shots

  6. You really haven’t established how women are being excluded. In the age of new media where women have greater freedom than ever before, women CHOOSE to submit articles on the silliest, most superficial subjects.

    Women contributors to the Guardian insist on writing about body hair, breast size and women’s magazine covers when they could be contributing substantial ideas to improving the female condition.

    Look at those God awful websites Mamamia and Jezebel. They are both run by women. Their contributors are almost exclusively women. Given all that freedom, look at the standard of their articles, look at the complete absence of ideas. All they want to talk about is vaginal soap and thigh gaps. What’s stopping them from changing the world? Who is stopping them from coming up with a national plan for childcare?

    You yourself could have contributed something to change the world here, but instead you’ve chosen to waste 34 days counting the number of articles written by men versus women. How the hell does that advance women’s interests?

  7. I reckon a lot depends on where you look – the “mass media” have been consigning women to the realms which make the most money for advertisers for decades (when was the last time Woman’s Day ran an article about “how big homes contribute to climate change – let our architect show you the alternative”, or “I escaped garment factory slavery in Bangladesh”.) Look instead to places like The Hoopla, Women’s Agenda (Georgina Dent editor)and The Fifth Estate, where there is regular commentary by women on economics, sustainability, technology, development and politics – not in any ghetto-ised “this is a women’s issue” sense, but it happens to be a woman who is the managing editor and publisher, and women who write a substantial proportion of the content. Fairfax et al could do a lot to pick their socks up in the sense of gender equality in opinions, however, is it really the kind of company a right-thinking, progressive person of any gender wants to be in anyway? Readers need to vote with their clicks, and look elsewhere.

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