Its a Man’s World: Mediations of Women and Politics on Prime Time

women-in-politics2Posted on behalf of Dr Anne O’Brien, National University of Ireland Maynooth. This blog presents the arguments from a paper published in Irish Political Studies by the author. Free access to the paper is available for the month of March at


Media depictions of women in Irish politics are far from unproblematic. The mediated space for women on the Irish national broadcaster RTÉ’s flagship current affairs series Prime Time during General Election 2011 was structured on highly gendered terms. In the 11 episodes of election coverage, women’s engagement with politics was gendered through processes of numeric underrepresentation, gendered visual practices, the use of predominantly male sources and by structuring the content of women’s contribution to political debate.

Women were numerically underrepresented on Prime Time’s general election coverage. While constituting at least 50% of the Irish population, women were present as participants in a 1:3 ratio to men. When the amount of airtime allocated to women was calculated, they received even less representation, with only 25% of the total airtime going to female voices. If the contributions of RTÉ female staff were removed from that 25% figure then female participants on Prime Time received only 10% of airtime. This pattern also translated into the participation of elite politicians on the programme where 36 men but only 5 women participated in studio debates. This is not an entirely unexpected outcome regarding representation of political elites as the gender imbalance in Irish parliament in 2010 was 86.15% male to 13.85% female. With only 15.2% female candidates for the 2011 election the programme accurately matches but does not challenge or disrupt the low ratio of female representation amongst the political elite.

Women were also gendered in a visual way in Prime Time’s general election coverage. In studio debates women were less visible than men. Five studio debates had no female participant and a further five had only one women. On the main report that covered the voting intentions of the public, which in the Irish case is actually gender balanced, in other words women are as likely to vote as men, women were not represented in the 50% proportion in which they vote. Visually men out represented women in a ration of 75:25. Patters of visual representation also showed that women were absent from the predominantly masculine public spaces where the report was filmed, such as a cattle mart, GAA grounds and a pub. In the report the women interviewed were located at a housing estate and at a rowing club, outdoor spaces but not very public ones. Visually the report carried 86 shots of men and only 29 shots of women. The overriding visual message was that men were more present, more active, more vocal and more publicly engaged than women. With regard to how established politicians were represented a definite visual pattern emerged again, whereby women politicians tended to feature mainly in the background of sequences, as passive participants and usually only as part of larger group shots. Female politicians were always visually framed as supporters and silent followers of male leaders whereas male candidates tended to be filmed as active in shots depicting them as speakers at podiums addressing crowds.

The use of sources in ‘Prime Time’ was also problematic in its gender bias. Women were invariably underrepresented in all segments of the programme, in the studio debates amongst elite politicians, in location-based reports and in secondary panel discussion segments. As regards content and participation women were more usually present in discussions of ‘soft’ or caring political issues such as in debates on health, unemployment and education and they were less frequently present for discussions of ‘hard’ or technical topics such as economics, politics or foreign affairs. The latter hard topics are more usually connected to senior and leadership positions in political institutions. The absence of women’s voices on those issues thus creates a further barrier to entry into leadership roles and blocks women’s political progress in a way that men may not experience. Moreover, women were most likely to be presented contributing personal opinions or experiences and asking for resources or help from institutional politicians rather than being used as sources based on their own professional, authoritative or expert status.

The consequence of these patterns of numeric imbalance, visual absence and bias in the use of sources on Prime Time is that it creates a structural mediation of women in Irish politics that underrepresents them.  Women’s political lives and views and participation generally are relegated, viewed as being of lesser importance than men’s involvement in the cut and thrust of the world of power. This representation of women’s engagement with politics, as marginal or minor, serves only to further exclude them from an institution that is already numerically hostile to their presence and perpetuates a situation where the presumption is that politics is primarily, or worse exclusively, a ‘man’s world’.

2 thoughts on “Its a Man’s World: Mediations of Women and Politics on Prime Time

  1. The study of Anne O’Brien presumes that an invisible and unconscious plot refrains women from accessing the public sphere. Such a theory, as in all scientific work, cannot be held dogmatically, but instead, must be refutable. How refutable is the author’s theory? My understanding of the paper leads me to conclude that no fair criticism would be allowed, because no solid method of truth-finding, which she could use, has ever been set up in this field.

    Hypotheses are solid only when their reasoning explain both the results of the phenomenon and those of the experiment.
    Take, for instance, the author’s claim: somehow, journalists, reporters and TV staff bias their depiction of women to make it match with their own vision. But how do we judge a bias, scientifically? We could do our own random reporting, we could make our own statistics. All in all, we should assess the difference between the depiction of reality, and reality itself. We would then quantify real masculine presence in the public sphere, real difference in the topics of day-to-day conversations among same-sex groups. And we would immediately assess with scientific exactness whether there is a bias or not.
    But the author refrains to study reality. She suggests that journalists are the plotters, and implicitly calls to bias the media in favor of a counter-plot favoring a definition of women peculiar to her field. After all, this must be worth it.

    Such method lacks the scientific foundation, on which further development is secure; inevitably, this leads to a waste of energy. All the sadder is that whenever such a study happens to persuade an officeholder or a person of power to act, it suddenly appears a giant and inescapable contradiction: the counter-plot, which the study implicitly called for, implies a very ‘unrealistic’ concept of women, only derived from ideology, and the scheme fails to deliver its promise. If we hold that women must be as present in the political sphere, as visible, as powerful, and on and on, then we assume that they are identical to men in everything but in appearance and culture. This is the ‘queer’ theory that previous militant marxists have begot in order to explain why 5 decades or more of freedom of choice have not led to exact parity.

    However the queer theory is the perfect example of a field not based on hypotheses, but on dogmas. Whenever someone brings biological experiments showing that sexes do exist, that the X and Y chromosomes do matter, that hormones lead to behavioral traits, far from being found more precise in his definition of human nature, he is labeled an ‘essentialist’, which is an insult in this field! With such a poisonous ideology, authors become necessarily sterile, if not noxious.

    Why such a disdain for truth? Why keeping on such a sterile path? It will occur to the awakened man that the Frankfurt school (the said marxist group) has never intended to do real science. Their target was admitedly the Christian civilization. Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, the secular jewish founders, were religious fanatics in disguise. In retrospect, we understand what the unrealistic counter-plot and unscientific concept of man and woman is meant for: subversion.

    For the naive, Marxism will serve as a posture. It seeks a world free of color and moral institutions, while claiming to be anticapitalist. But don’t we say that money doesn’t stink, that it has no color or creed? Marxists are the Capital’s best ally, they go hand-in-hand, in a dialectic that coerces the world into this borderless, colorless, godless, genderless type, where foreign oligarchs can now rule, set ablaze, set to their needs, outsource, corrupt, the countries where individuals, split from their family cell, are herded through lie and deceit.

    So far, the bringing down of our gender culture hasn’t made life of families, individuals, and the workplace more livable. It blurs differences, denies a gender-based approach out of privilege, and justifies the exploitation of women not by husbands, but by a much irresponsible type: corporations. What has put so many mothers in the need for a salary, if not the capitalist-turned-leftist ideal of second wave feminists? What takes for granted the misogynistic reality of females sacrificing their feminity for a career, if not third wave feminists? Capitalists, however, are not lured as they now sell the sexualized toys that prepare young girls to the world shaped by the queer theory —where seduction becomes a weapon for selfish gain, where competition is the ultimate goal of a genderless world, where women confronted to the demands of the market will eschew the respect of their own.

    Finally, the subject of the article —questioning the sex ratio in politics— is questionable. If male attributes are transgression and violence, then their end are in themselves a political platform for conformism and liberalism, both of which have already lead us to a wealth of politicians (men and women alike) being afraid to guide and to go against the grain in a time where Ireland is docile and submissive to Brussels’ and the City’s amazingly corrupt powers. Symbolically, the country’s politics are already feminized: Ireland does not have ‘the balls’ to stand up for her core interests. She wishes instead to seduce whatever powerful men there are, and if she does not get what she wants, she will make do and comply.

    Can women change the state of affairs? At least they will unveil what public politics have long been about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s