Posted 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 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07907184.2014.922960#abstract
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’.